Tailbacks gone wild

When Tauren Poole is the fourth guy in your tailback rotation ... well, you've got a pretty strong tailback rotation.

Clearly, the Tennessee Vols have a pretty strong tailback rotation. Fans will get a better idea just how strong it is when the Vols host UCLA at 4 this afternoon in Neyland Stadium.

So far, though, the tailback stable appears loaded.

Senior starter Montario Hardesty rushed 18 times for 160 yards in last weekend's 63-7 Game 1 blowout of Western Kentucky, more than doubling his previous career high of 78 yards.

Freshman backup Bryce Brown came off the bench to contribute 104 yards on 11 carries, averaging even more yards per carry (9.5 to 8.9) than Hardesty.

Third-teamer David Oku, another freshman, contributed 42 yards on eight carries. Poole, a sophomore who led all rushers in preseason scrimmages, added 62 yards on five rushes, a whopping 12.4 yards-per-carry average.

While Western Kentucky hardly qualifies as a defensive dynamo, the imposing performance of Tennessee's tailbacks last weekend suggests this is an exceptional group of runners.

Senior guard Jacques McClendon put it this way: "As long as we can make the holes upfront for them, I think the sky's the limit for those people."

McClendon thought the four tailbacks played well during the course of Game 1. After watching the tape, he has an even higher regard for them.

"When you're on the field (as a blocker) you bust off a nice run and you don't really see how it happened," he said. "Then you go back and watch the film, and some of the cuts those backs made are just unbelievable."

The Game 1 performance of Tennessee's rushers should come as no surprise to those who have followed Auburn football the past 10 years. Eddie Gran molded Rudi Johnson, Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown into standouts during his decade coaching Tiger running backs, and now he's refining rushers for the Volunteers.

"Coach Gran is a great coach and he's brought a new mentality to them about running the ball, running hard, getting it north/south," McClendon said. "It really is incredible watching our backs on film ... some of the runs they have."

One thing Gran has done is cut down on wasted motion. Vol backs are taught to hit the hole, make one cut and head goal-ward. Obviously, the quicker a back hits the hole, the less time the lineman has to maintain his block.

"The backs we have are looking from tackle to tackle for one gap, one cut and getting up in the hole," McClendon said. "I think that really does help us (linemen). I think it's also a testament to the system we run and how successful we can be as long as we execute."

Asked earlier this week if he planned to use the same rotation at tailback in Game 2 as in Game 1, head coach Lane Kiffin shrugged.

"I really don't know," he said. "There's too many variables: How do they practice that week? What does the defense give us? Which guy will fit a certain route or a certain play we're going to run?"

Kiffin threw a wrinkle at Western Kentucky that Tennessee did not show in preseason scrimmages. One offensive set featured Hardesty at tailback and Brown at fullback. You wonder: Will fans see more of that vs. UCLA?

"It just depends," Kiffin said. "With two great players like Hardesty and Bryce, there's times that you're going to want them on the field together. That was the case with that. One time Hardesty and David Oku were on the field together. We'll continue to look for ways to get our best players on the field."

With four quality tailbacks on the roster, that may require some real creativity.


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