KNOXVILLE — In college football, a coaching change is as much about altering the culture and mind-set of a team as it is about installing an offense or defense.
Montario Hardesty won’t be around for whatever comes next at Tennessee. But Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin hopes that Hardesty’s example sets the tone for his team going forward.
“He is what we’re trying to build the program like,” Kiffin said regarding the Vols’ starting tailback. “The way he is, that’s what we need 85 players to be like. Because he cares.”
Hardesty cared so much that Kiffin said he was “in tears” after the 26-22 loss to Auburn. Even though Hardesty ran for 90 yards to remain the Southeastern Conference rushing leader.
“He didn’t care one bit about that,” Kiffin said. “He wanted to win. And it hurt him a lot.”
Hardesty currently averages 115 rushing yards per game, the sixth-best mark in the country. With 575 total yards, he’s on pace to run for 1,380 yards in 2009. For what it’s worth, the single-season rushing record at UT is 1,464 yards, set by Travis Stephens in 2001.
“I’d rather be (undefeated) right now than be the leading rusher in the SEC, but it shows that we’re running the ball right now, and that’s something that we’re doing well,” Hardesty said Tuesday. “We just need to continue to get better as an offense.”
Right now, no player on the offensive side of the ball is playing better than Hardesty, who Florida coach Urban Meyer called one of the best backs in the country on Wednesday’s SEC coaches’ teleconference.
“Montario’s a great back. You saw flashes of it back in 2005,” left tackle Chris Scott said. “We knew the future was bright for Montario coming in. He’s going to go out and play, he’s going to go out and give his all for Tennessee and that’s all anyone expects of him. As the offensive line, it’s our job to get him his yards and his carries so he can do his thing.”
It’s taken four years for Hardesty to reach this point, as the go-to guy in the Vols’ ground game. He blew out his knee in the fourth game of the 2005 season, then successfully petitioned for a medical redshirt. Ankle injuries curtailed his 2006 and 2007 campaigns. Last year, Hardesty was healthy but never did find his niche — or regular playing time — in Dave Clawson’s offensive scheme.
The transition to Kiffin’s offense forced Hardesty to change his running style somewhat.
“Our system is definitely one cut and go, press your hole, so I had to definitely change some things in my running game,” he said.
Hardesty also spent plenty of time on the side trying to refine his pass-catching skills. He has eight receptions for 94 yards, including an impressive 31-yard catch-and-run touchdown against Auburn.
“A lot of people thought that I couldn’t catch it, and I really hadn’t gotten the ball thrown to me a lot,” Hardesty said. “My mind-set was that I didn’t want there to be any reason where the coaches thought they could take me out of the game, so I worked on protection and running and catching the ball, so that I could be a guy that’s an every play running back.”
And, in the process, he’s become the most invaluable member of the Vols’ offensive football team.
INJURY REPORT: Vladimir Richard has yet to return to practice. Richard, the Vols’ veteran left guard, is fighting Achilles and knee injuries.
Strong-side linebacker Greg King suffered an undisclosed injury lifting weights Tuesday and has not practiced since.
Volquest.com reported that wide receiver Gerald Jones has re-aggravated his ankle sprain.
Kiffin said Wednesday that Richard and King probably will be game-time decisions on Saturday.