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Spring Position Battles: Running Backs

As Spring Practice is set to begin tomorrow, we wrap up our previews of the open competition battles at each position today. You can check out all of our previous installments over the last three weeks here:

  • Quarterback
  • Defensive Backs
  • Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
  • Defensive Line
  • Offensive Line
  • Linebackers
  • Kickers
  • While secondary is the unit Vol fans have to feel most comfortable with, and the one that contains the team's best player, on the offensive side of the ball there are equal parts familiarity and high expectation in the backfield. Tennessee returns two backs with each more than 100 career carries and 5 career touchdowns, with more than 1,600 yards of career work between them. Montario Hardesty and Lennon Creer will go head-to-head this spring, and while Kiffin may use both of them come fall, you'd better believe that everyone associated with the Tennessee program is eager to find out which one of them will put up bigger numbers this spring.

    Digging into the RTT archives, we've seen evidence of good things from these kids before:

    Of course, those clips are from 2006 and 2007, respectively. Everyone involved in the Tennessee offense struggled last season, but I very much still believe that the talent and ability with both of these kids to be productive SEC backs is still there.

    So, who's it going to be? We break down the numbers...

    Montario Hardesty

    • 6'0", 210 lbs Senior
    • 2006: 107 carries, 384 yards (3.6 per), 4 TD
    • 2007: 89 carries, 373 yards (4.2 per), 3 TD
    • 2008: 76 carries, 271 yards (3.2 per), 6 TD
    • 13 career receptions for 98 yards

    Lennon Creer

    • 6'1", 210 lbs Junior
    • 2007: 36 carries, 214 yards (5.9 per), 1 TD
    • 2008: 73 carries, 388 yards (5.3 per), 4 TD
    • 5 career receptions for 23 yards

    So, you look at the stats and what immediately separates the two is the yards per carry stat. However, it's very, very important to remember that the bulk of Creer's work has come against inferior defenses - he's never been handed the ball and been "the guy" in a big game:

    • vs Florida 08: 1 carry, 4 yards
    • at Georgia 08: 2 carries, 2 yards
    • vs Alabama 08: 3 carries, 7 yards
    • at Florida 07: 4 carries, 15 yards
    • vs Georgia 07: 3 carries, 5 yards
    • vs LSU 07: 1 carry, 1 yard
    • vs Wisconsin 07: 1 carry, -2 yards

    That's not at all to say that Creer can't become Tennessee's signature back this season. It's just to show that he hasn't proven it on the field under the brighest lights; he's run for 50+ yards six times, but that was against Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Miss, UAB, Wyoming, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State.

    (Sorry, I'm still feeling the sickness of "Jonathan Crompton is the next Tim Tebow." Dave Clawson gave me something only Lane Kiffin can cure.)

    To be fair, if you want to include everybody in the "things coaches probably shouldn't have said or done" file, Phil Fulmer compared Creer to Chuck Webb after the Southern Miss game in 2007. Those of us old enough to have watched #44 play in 1989 know that he's still the torchbearer for talent in a Vol backfield. That was an awful lot of hype for a kid after one good game against a C-USA defense.

    Two years later, Creer is at the top of the list of players that Vol fans hope get a dose of instant transformation from the new staff. Perhaps not even transformation, but opportunity. Can he really be that good? Not even Chuck Webb good, but the type of threat the Vols haven't had in their backfield since Travis Stephens? Give the kid a chance to do his thing, we say. Well, this spring Creer's going to get it.

    But don't forget about Hardesty.

    #2 doesn't have jaw-dropping numbers against any of those same elite defenses. But he has played the role of workhorse in this offense before: 14 carries for 68 yards against Georgia in 2007, 20 for 65 against Arkansas later that year, 19 for 72 against Air Force in 2006. He's been banged up a lot, redshirting in 2005 and missing six total games in the last two seasons due to injury. But if he can stay healthy, I still think Montario is a very viable option as the starter for this team.

    Either way I don't think the Vols go wrong, and this is one of the more favorable spring position battles: whoever wins, so do we. Tennessee needs a big year from whoever is carrying the football, whether that's one guy or split reps, and I think the Vols have the talent to pull it off. Even if one of these guys doesn't put up 1,500 yards by himself and become the next Chuck Webb or Jamal Lewis, I'll take a tandem effort like the one we saw from Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs in 2004.

    The Rest of the Field

    Tauren Poole ran 9 times for 43 yards against UAB, and 11 times for 44 yards against Wyoming last year. He's a couple inches shorter but still has a similar build with Hardesty and Creer, and with the graduation of Arian Foster, who won't be taking carries from anyone this year, he may see his workload increase.

    We know we'll have David Oku, Rivals' #1 all-purpose back in the country. And we may have Bryce Brown as well, Rivals' #1 running back period. But we won't have either of them in the spring. As exciting as these kids may ultimately be, you want to come out of spring feeling good about Hardesty, Creer or both as the starter.

    It's unclear how Kiffin will use the fullback in his offense; Kevin Cooper was decent in the role last season, and Austin Johnson is still floating around as well. The Vols haven't employed a true fullback since Will Bartholomew in 2001, and did have some success with Shawn Bryson and Troy Fleming as hybrids in the last ten years...we'll see if anything happens here.

    What to Watch For

    The majority of Vol fans and even some in the mainstream media are annointing Creer as the next big playmaker - and again, I'll be thrilled if that materializes. We just haven't seen him play that role against SEC competition yet. Don't be surprised if Hardesty stays right with him in this race, or if Montario ends up running for more yards in 2009. Either way, Tennessee needs a good spring out of someone in the backfield, especially if the passing game continues to struggle. The backs will go behind four veteran offensive linemen and a player to be named later.

    It's a new day with the philosophy of the running game in the pro-style offense, but this is still the SEC and you still must run it well to win. Can Hardesty or Creer step up to an All-SEC level and be the focal point of the offense this season?