If Montario Hardesty keeps his current pace in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, this decade will have seen the two greatest single-season rushing performances, and the two greatest career rushing performances in Tennessee Football history...turned in by four different players.
These four players bookend the decade, with the careers of Travis Henry and Travis Stephens coming to a close in 2000 and 2001, and the careers of Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty coming to a close in 2008 and 2009. In between, we give an honorable mention nod to Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs, and especially to the 2004 season, in which both of them ran for over 1,000 yards. However, the single season and career accomplishments of Henry, Stephens, Foster and Hardesty separate them from the rest of the pack, and we present them to you as the nominees for the Tennessee Football running back of the decade.
Casey Clausen ran away with the All-Decade QB vote over Erik Ainge, with almost two-thirds of the vote. This time, I think the vote will be much more competitive. As we'll continue to do throughout the month, we breakdown the candidates and ask you to decide...
So, the trick in doing these all-decade things is being able to separate the careers of players like Henry, who was also a feature back in Knoxville in 1998 and 1999. And of course with Henry, so much of his legend at Tennessee revolves around his performance in that 1998 National Championship season. In voting for the best of this decade, we're only going to look at Henry's performance in his 2000 senior season.
However, the entire body of Henry's work left him as Tennessee's all-time leading rusher, a record he still holds with 3,078 yards (including 970 in 1998 and 790 in 1999, sharing the load in both of those seasons). In 2000, Henry was finally the primary option at tailback from start to finish, and playing with Joey Matthews, AJ Suggs and Casey Clausen at quarterback, Henry was the primary option for the entire offense.
As a result, The Cheese turned in the fourth best season in Tennessee Football history with 1,314 yards (a number Montario Hardesty will pass with just nine yards in the bowl game). He put Tennessee on his back in The Jabar Gaffney Game, with 175 yards against the vaunted Gators. The 2000 Tennessee-Florida game is one of the very few exceptions to the rule of the team that wins the rushing battle will win the game. Henry took the Vols close to the end zone several times, but an inability to punch it in and convert a critical fourth quarter first down led to Florida's eventual game winning drive.
But Henry continued to pound away in 2000, getting a career high with 214 yards against Arkansas to go along with 180 yards in a loss to Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, a performance that included an 81 yard touchdown run. His 15 career 100+ yard games is a Tennessee record. Henry went on to great professional success and personal struggles after leaving Tennessee, but he remains the benchmark by which all other career performances are measured, the only back in Vol history to run for more than 3,000 yards in a career.
Perhaps the most patient of all Vol tailbacks, one of many qualities he shares with Hardesty, Travis Stephens played his part in the Vols' 1998 National Championship season, then was asked to redshirt the following season when the Vols' backfield included Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, and Onterrio Smith. It didn't seem fair, but Stephens put his head down and went along with it.
After backing up Henry in 2000, Stephens finally became the feature back in 2001. Some questioned his size, especially in comparison to Lewis and Henry. But in the second game of the '01 season, questions about his durability ceased: in a game that was delayed more than an hour for driving rain and lightning, Stephens carried the ball a school record 41 times for 206 yards. He was robbed of what should've been one of the all-time great moments of the Fulmer Era, as his screen pass for a score in the final minute of the Tennessee-Georgia game was negated by The Hobnailed Boot.
But Stephens kept coming, every week. He played his way to the final cut for the Doak Walker Award, rushing for 162 against Alabama in Tennessee's final win of a seven year streak. His season would finish as the greatest in Tennessee history, and is the mark Hardesty will chase in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl: 1,464 yards for the year, as the Vols went 11-2. Stephens struggled in the SEC Championship game and lost a costly fumble, and that must be taken into account.
But by far, Stephens turned in the greatest individual football performance of the decade in the decade's biggest win: the postponed 2001 Florida game, featuring the #4 Vols and #2 Gators, where Stephens ran for an unbelievable 226 yards, leaving Florida's defense in his wake and leading Tennessee to a 34-32 victory.
Some Vol fans may question Foster's inclusion on this list, but the reality remains that he trails only Henry in career rushing yards at this university (by only 114 yards), a feat that we tip our hats to regardless of the rough process of getting there.
Foster was one of the few bright spots in the dismal 2005 season, replacing an injured Gerald Riggs in the middle of that season and running for 100+ yards in everyone of his starts as a freshman, finishing with 879 yards in just five starts. This raised the bar on the rest of Foster's career, a career that saw some of his greatest accomplishments go unappreciated for one reason or another; Foster ran for 223 yards against Vanderbilt in his freshman season, but the Vols lost the game.
Foster would split time with Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker over the next two seasons, running for only 322 yards in 2006. But he bounced back bigtime in 2007, running for 1,193 yards and 12 touchdowns in the Vols' SEC East Championship run. The Clawfense was no friend to anyone on the Vol offense, and that included Foster, who seemed like a sure thing to get Henry's career record at the start of the '08 season. But instead, he finished with only 570 yards and one touchdown.
Foster's best performances came in his freshman season, and though he really didn't fumble an excessive amount, the times he did put the ball on the turf were incredibly costly. As such, Foster caught more heat from the fanbase than any other player outside of Jon Crompton. His best moments weren't fully appreciated and his worst moments were highly magnified...but his career numbers will always speak for themselves.
Hardesty has turned in the most consistent performance of the decade this season: he hasn't played a bad game all season, his lowest numbers coming as a result of the Alabama defense and a huge hole against Ole Miss. He hasn't fumbled all season. He was the only option at the start of the season, and turned in gutsy performances in losses to UCLA, Florida, and Auburn. And he was the best option at the end of the season, running for 171 against Vanderbilt and 179 and the clincher at Kentucky.
All of this comes after Hardesty was banged up, redshirted, and waited for four years to get this chance. There were flashes of brilliance, including a sensational touchdown run against Cal in 2006. But Hardesty kept waiting behind Foster, kept getting talked about less than Coker and Lennon Creer, and then had to listen to everyone talk about Bryce Brown. Hardesty stayed quiet, went to work, and has rewarded everyone with a sensational 2009 season.
Hardesty needs 159 yards in the final game of the decade to pass Stephens' single-season mark, currently sitting at 1,306 yards. With 2,352 career rushing yards, he will almost certainly move into 8th on Tennessee's all-time rushing list in the bowl game. And he has been the most outstanding player of Lane Kiffin's first year.