Aug. 26, 2009
BY JOSH PATE
The film said it all. Montario Hardesty could simply look at the film and see what this season and beyond could hold.
The senior tailback is no fortune teller, and neither is a piece of game film. If anybody knows that, it's Hardesty. He was praised as Tennessee's next big thing when he stepped onto campus in 2005 - by players, analysts and former head coach Phillip Fulmer. A list of things have gotten in the way. So a look at the film doesn't guarantee his successful future, but it doesn't hurt confidence.
On the first film are Reggie Bush and LenDale White. The two former star running backs at Southern Cal collected two national championships with the Trojans and Bush won the 2005 Heisman Trophy. Bush finished his career with 6,541 all-purpose yards. White collected a school-record 52 touchdowns.
On the next film are Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown. Southeastern Conference fans are familiar with Auburn's old one-two punch. Williams broke Bo Jackson's school record for career touchdowns, and Brown provided the powerful sidebar that happened to rack up more than 2,700 career yards while sharing the workload.
Bush and White were coached by Lane Kiffin at USC when he was offensive coordinator. Williams and Brown were coached by Eddie Gran at Auburn when he was running backs coach. And now both coaches are supervising Hardesty's senior season at Tennessee. So yes, he is eager for kickoff.
"The biggest thing about Montario is that he bought into the system from the get-go," said Gran, who has coached at least seven NFL running backs at some time in his career. "He was excited about Coach Kiffin's offense and what they had done rushing the football. As you study that with the film he had at USC, how could you not get excited as a running back?"
Of course, a little film room time has never been an issue with Hardesty. The senior is notorious for being one of the hardest workers on the team both on the field and in meetings. But college footage of current NFL running backs isn't all that drives Hardesty. He's finally healthy.
Two games into the 2005 season he tore up his knee and was out for the year. He bounced back big with career-highs in both carries (107) and yards (384), establishing what most thought to be the tone for his career at UT. The tone, however, was a little flat. After starting five games in 2006, he was relegated to backup his sophomore year. He had a solid year in 2007 (373 yards), but he couldn't break through before another injury sidelined him for three games. Hardesty played in 11 games last season, starting just one. His numbers were down across the board. So now, with the coaching staff promising all positions are up for grabs, Hardesty sees the positives. He knows nothing is guaranteed him just because he's a senior leader. Yet he also knows it's upped the ante for him, and for others.
"I don't think there's any question," Gran said about Hardesty stepping up his game. "It's been Coach Kiffin's philosophy from the beginning - he told the guys if they go 15 practices, that would be their evaluation process. Then we were going to sign a group of young men and they were going to come in and get a chance to take their jobs. How awesome is that? That's what's happening. If your tools aren't sharpened and you aren't focused and you aren't taking it seriously, then you're going to get beat out. It's a simple game plan."
And it appears to be working.
Touted freshmen tailbacks Bryce Brown and David Oku have grabbed headlines and time on the field. In the second preseason scrimmage, they got the critical game-situation carries as the offense struggled to find a rhythm while Hardesty watched and steamed. He wasn't as upset with the coaching staff as he was drooling to get a chance to get onto the field.
"Montario was not happy we pulled him early. He wasn't happy with that. He wanted to get back out there," Kiffin said. "I don't know that that would necessarily be the case if Bryce Brown and David Oku weren't here. Him seeing those guys I think has made him better."
Hardesty realized that challenge after the Vols inked their recruiting class and he hit the practice field and the gym.
"If there's an opportunity there, I'll try to take advantage of it," Hardesty said. "I think I started that going into conditioning and spring ball. I just tried to come out hard. Coach Kiffin said no one had a [starting] position, so I just wanted to come out and show them what I had. I think the competition on our team is going to make us a better team come the first game."
Gran took it even further back to 2005 when Hardesty tore his knee ligament and had to increase his dedication to play.
"To me, those injuries, because of his work ethic to get back, is what have made him tough and mentally tough. You have to," he said. "Guys who have had injuries and do come back, you've got to work. The ones who don't work don't play because they don't get stronger. So my hat's off to him because he's so mentally tough.
"The competition deal, whether he had injuries or not, that's what Coach Kiffin is creating around here. He loves it. He loves it that we've signed really, really good running backs. It's made him better every day and kept him sharp."
It's Hardesty's work ethic that has been influential on both other players and the coaches as well. He credits that not to rehabbing injuries or battling younger competition, but to last season.
The Vols finished 5-7 (3-5 SEC). A lot of other things happened along the way, but the losing record is what Hardesty has pointed to as motivation. And others are listening.
"He's been such a great leader," Gran said. "And he's stayed healthy during the spring. He went through 15 really hard practices that were physical, and that gave him confidence. Here we are through preseason game No. 3 and it's the same thing. It's been a rough camp, but he's grinding and doing all the things that a senior should do."
For Hardesty, it's what he's going to keep doing.
"I just try to go out and do what I do," he said. "I think the fellows see that I want to win. This is my last go-around so I definitely want to win. During the summer, I just went out and I did everything 100 percent. I went into the weight room hard. I went into seven-on-sevens hard.
"I don't feel that being a leader you've got to go out and do all the talking. I feel like people are going to follow leaders. I feel like I just go out and do what I do, and people will come along on the boat. I just want to win. That's it. That's all I care about."
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