At his introductory news conference, Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin quipped that he learned crisis management during his tumultuous tenure with the Oakland Raiders.
He also learned the importance of running the football.
Last week in Knoxville, Kiffin said he gained a greater appreciation for the run game during his stint as the Raiders’ head coach.
“Going there, Oakland had been 31st in rushing. I think, for four straight years, they had never been above 29th in rushing,” Kiffin noted. “We went to sixth the first year there.”
At one point in 2007, the Raiders led the NFL in both rushing yardage and the number of carries.
“I became a much better run-game coach there and much better at understanding how important it is for your team — if you’re going to be a physical team, a dominant team for your defense — for you to be a great running team,” Kiffin said.
There’s no telling whether or not the Volunteers’ tailbacks and fullbacks have the makings of a great season.
But with questions at quarterback and injuries at wide receiver, the Vols’ running game had better be at least darn good.
For now, discussion of the pecking order at tailback starts with fifth-year senior Montario Hardesty. The 6-foot, 215-pound North Carolinian impressed Kiffin during what had been a rarity for Hardesty — an injury-free spring practice.
Hardesty’s career has been pockmarked by a variety of lower-body ailments, ranging from torn knee ligaments to ankle problems to a stress fracture in his leg.
At the end of spring drills, Kiffin identified Hardesty as one of the emerging leaders — evidenced by the tailback’s presence at SEC Media Days.
The question is whether Hardesty can continue to lead the way on the depth chart for the entirety of the 2009 season.
The freshmen will get plenty of reps at the start of fall camp to evaluate their projected contributions in the coming campaign.
And none of those freshmen carry weightier expectations than Bryce Brown.
The top-rated prospect in the country according to Rivals.com and the consensus No. 1-ranked running back, Brown ran for more than 1,800 yards in each of his final two seasons of high school ball. Brown kept his various suitors hanging for weeks after national signing day before signing with the Vols.
Kiffin theorized that “people got the wrong image” of Brown (6-0, 218) during the recruiting process.
“I think you’re going to see that he’s a very special guy,” the coach said. “He’s a great student. He’s very dedicated. He’s a vegetarian. ... He’s very serious and very focused about being great.”
Then there’s Oku, another late signee who Rivals.com tabbed as the top all-purpose back available in the 2009 class. Though talented, at 5-10 and 186 pounds, Oku might need a year to bulk up before he can make an impact on the field.
Tauren Poole is another candidate for carries. A 5-10, 203-pound sophomore, Poole was a standout during spring practice and established himself as the No. 2 back behind Hardesty at the end of the session.
Freshman Toney Williams, an early enrollee, also showed promise this spring but tore his ACL during the offseason and will miss the entire 2009 campaign.
Kiffin called the fullback potentially one of the team’s strongest positions at the start of spring.
Junior Kevin Cooper, the incumbent there, should retain his starting job barring catastrophe. Primarily a blocker in 2008, Cooper is a threat as a receiver, making seven catches last season.
Austin Johnson, a sophomore, backs up Cooper at that position.
In Kiffin’s two years as offensice coordinator at Southern Cal, the Trojans ranked sixth and 68th in rushing.
That first season, both Reggie Bush and LenDale White each ran for more than 1,000 yards — something that has happened at Tennessee only once, in 2004.
How do Tennessee’s running backs measure up in the SEC? John Moorehouse breaks it down in his “Orange Clockwork” blog at www.timesnews.net.