July 28, 2009

No spotlight needed for healthy Hardesty

Montario Hardesty wears a perpetual smile that belies his ability to cut around a defender or run over him. Or to ram over and through a half-dozen men, if they happen to be wearing a California Golden Bears uniform.

This is useful since the University of Tennessee senior tailback has primarily spent his first couple of sessions with reporters this summer answering questions about everything but how he intends to help a Tennessee offense that last season was anemic on its good days and Washington Nationals bad on the rest.

Mostly folks want to know about Hardesty's new head coach, Lane Kiffin; headlines surrounding the Tennessee football program and occasionally even his All-America teammate, Eric Berry. Periodically someone inquires about the potential for a quarterback competition when the Vols open camp one week from today. (Hardesty says he's "ready to see how the quarterback thing plays out in fall camp because both guys (Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens) have been improving.")

When someone asked about the tailbacks, it often has been to inquire about the heralded and mythically-hyped Bryce Brown – the No. 1 recruit whom many have assumed simply will usurp Hardesty's starting mantle. Still others have centered on the electric and enigmatic David Oku. Rarely ever has Montario Hardesty gotten to answer a question about himself, except the one he now has faced in four consecutive preseasons and quite frankly could do without.

Yes, Hardesty insists, he's plenty healthy. As good as he's felt since high school. It showed in spring camp, when the fifth-year senior from New Bern, N.C., ran so effectively that it effectively ran off Lennon Creer.

Recently tabbed a top-100 all-time Rivals.com recruit, the 6-foot, 215-pound Hardesty possesses an NFL skill set and the determination to atone. Not really for his personal disappointments but more so for a proud program that twice hasn't gone bowling since Hardesty arrived as a member of the Vols' ballyhooed 2005 recruiting class.

"I'm definitely motivated just to get that 5-7 season, that bad taste out of our mouths," said Hardesty, who last year seemed poised for a breakout campaign when he scored two touchdowns in the opener at UCLA. "All the extra things aren't really motivation to me. Playing on Saturdays in the SEC should be motivation enough. I think everybody on our team wants to be winners.

"I'm definitely a winner so I'm definitely motivated to come back this year and show that we belong in the SEC with the better teams and get back to the top."

Through hard work and effective, action-based leadership, Hardesty already has proven to Kiffin he's a locker-room presence worthy of the new head coach's trust. That's no small feat considering the defections from Tennessee's program since Kiffin was hired Dec. 1, 2008.

Yet Kiffin almost immediately gained Hardesty's trust.

"It's been very easy to buy into the new program. It's good for our program to be on TV as much as we have. Lane Kiffin had a plan for our program from the moment he came in," Hardesty said of his new coach and UT's elevated offseason profile. "I think being on TV can't hurt us. It just brings more excitement for the upcoming year. The coaching staff stands up for us, and we're behind them 100 percent."

Capitalizing on Kiffin's growing reputation as a players' coach, Hardesty likewise tries to spend as much time as possible with the Vols' new leader – particularly since Kiffin controls the playbook.

"That's one of the biggest things, he's like a player's coach. A real good coach to talk to. He's pretty much in charge of the offense, so I talk to him all the time about different things," said Hardesty, who has averaged a rushing touchdown for every 21 carries in his career at Tennessee. "He'll ask me how do I feel about this or that. He's definitely very easy to get in touch with."

Which is, after all, what's important. At least Hardesty's getting questions from the person with the opinion that matters most.

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