After managing just 1,046 yards and a 3.8 yards-per-carry average in his first three years on The Hill, Hardesty exploded for 1,345 yards and a 4.8 yards-per-carry average as a senior last fall.
That fabulous finish put him among the top running backs in this year's NFL Draft and put a lot of pressure on the man who will replace him as Tennessee's primary ball-carrier for 2010. That man appears to be Tauren Poole.
At 5-10 and 211 pounds, Poole is similar in body type to the 6-0, 225-pound Hardesty but different in running style. Whereas Hardesty was a hard-charging one-cut runner with excellent power, Poole relies more on vision, instinct and elusiveness.
Much as Hardesty spent most of his career stuck behind Arian Foster, Poole has been waiting his turn behind Hardesty. Perhaps Poole will have the kind of breakout year in 2010 that Hardesty had in 2009. That would be a best-case scenario for Tennessee's coaches and fans.
Here's the catch: Hardesty had a couple of critical advantages last fall that Poole won't have this fall.
First, Hardesty had 278 career carries heading into the 2009 season; Poole has just 32 heading into 2010.
Secondly, Hardesty opened the '09 season running behind four seniors and a junior. Poole projects to open the '10 season running behind a true freshman, a redshirt freshman, a sophomore, a junior and a senior.
Poole's inexperience as a college runner, coupled with the inexperience of his blockers, does not bode well for Tennessee's running attack. Still, he proved to be one of the pleasant surprises of spring practice. He showed a big-play knack by breaking a 67-yard touchdown run in Scrimmage No. 1 and a 65-yarder in Scrimmage No. 2. Then he showed his versatility by catching three passes for 58 yards in the Orange & White Game.
Poole's likely backups provide a nice complement to his running style. Sophomore David Oku (5-10, 185 pounds) is more of a speedster, while redshirt freshman Toney Williams (6-0, 215) is more of a power back - a la Hardesty.
Poole put up some pretty imposing numbers during the spring - rushing nine times for 94 yards in the first scrimmage, 11 times for 86 yards in the second and 12 times for 43 yards in the O&W Game. That's a combined 32 carries for 223 yards, which computes to an impressive 6.97 yards-per-carry average.
Oku's numbers weren't nearly so flashy. He ran 14 times for 23 yards in Scrimmage 1, 10 times for 33 yards in Scrimmage 2 and 8 times for 34 yards in the O&W Game. That's a combined 32 rushes for 90 yards, an average of 2.81 yards per carry.
Williams, coming off a torn ACL that caused him to miss the 2009 season, carried seven times for 12 yards in the first scrimmage, 12 times for 11 yards in the second and two times for minus-3 yards in the O&W Game. His cumulative stats show 20 yards on 21 carries, an average of less than one yard per attempt.
Joining the tailback derby in August will be signee Rajion Neal, a 5-11, 215-pounder. He rushed for 1,812 yards and 33 touchdowns last fall for Sandy Creek High of Tyrone, Ga., and will get a long look from Vol coaches in preseason camp.
Position outlook: Solid ... if Poole stays healthy.