October 2, 2008

Hardesty is Vols' home run threat

Because Tennessee failed to generate one final first down that might have yielded a game-winning field goal attempt on Saturday at Auburn, Montario Hardesty's best Babe Ruth impression hasn't gotten much attention.

But like the Hall of Fame slugger, Hardesty delivered on his promise with the Vols trailing Auburn, 14-6, in the second half. Facing a goal-to-go situation at the start of the fourth quarter, Tennessee's offense gathered along its sideline to discuss strategy - and personnel.

First-year tailbacks coach Stan Drayton wanted to give the junior Hardesty a quick breather. The fiery running back, healthier than at any point in his college career, had a different idea.

Two yards later, Hardesty flipped the ball to the officials on the Vols' lone trip to the end zone - and his fourth touchdown this season.

"It was a point where I felt like I was going to get it in the end zone, no matter what," said Hardesty. "I told him I wanted the ball. He left me in there."

On a team still very much developing both its offensive identity and leadership, Hardesty's delivery on his confident guarantee could extend well beyond the simple opportunity it gave Tennessee to attempt a game-tying two-point conversion.

"There was a time where I was getting ready to take him out of the ball game right before he scored that touchdown and he looked me right in the face and said, 'No, you are not taking me out. This is my play and I am going to get in the end zone,'" Drayton recalled. "And he did exactly what he said he was going to do. It's that type of leadership and emotion that is definitely needed for this group right now."

Though Hardesty hasn't yet started a game this season, the powerful, 6-foot, 210-pound junior has emerged as Tennessee's top "orange zone" tailback and a bruising runner with an explosive burst. It's continuing to take the next step - in the huddle, the locker room and on the practice field - where Hardesty shifted his offseason focus.

"I feel like I am one of the leaders on this team," Hardesty said. "I feel like as a running back group, we grew a lot tighter since coach Drayton came (in January) till now. I just think some of the guys look to me to provide leadership and I am just trying to give that."

Hardesty's lead-by-example playing style isn't lost on his offensive linemen, said junior center Josh McNeil.

"Montario definitely wants to punish defenses when they try to tackle him," McNeil said. "As an offensive lineman, you appreciate that and can't wait to block for a guy who's out there working just as hard as you are."

Similarly, Hardesty is working hard on making the most of his role - which was that of the lead back at Auburn - in a talented backfield with three capable runners and fewer carries in a methodical offense that, like all teams, is adjusting to new clock rules that have curtailed offensive snaps.

"Coach Drayton has a plan for us," Hardesty said. "He says he sees certain guys doing certain things well and playing in certain spots, so I can't really control that. I can control being productive when I am in there with the carries that I get."

Hardesty said he would neither stop asking for the ball in scoring situations nor stop working toward better overall execution from the group.

"I think with our offense there are some things we are doing well and there are some things we are not doing as well," he said. "When we get into the orange area we have to score and I want the ball. Get the ball to me and I feel like I can make a big run. I think there are a lot of guys on offense who feel that way. I just think we have to execute better especially in the orange area."

Echoing the sentiments of several players, Hardesty insists the offense is both poised for that breakthrough performance and an overall consistency that is lacking through a 1-3 start.

"I feel like we are one big play away from being a good offensive team and things start clicking," Hardesty said. One deep pass to Lucas (Taylor), a post to Gerald (Jones) or one long run. If we get that I think things will start clicking."

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