The Upside. In an offense full of question marks, Tennessee coaches have to feel the least uncomfortable with the running back position. After Gerald Riggs went down with a season-ending injury against Alabama last year, most of the carries went to freshman Arian Foster. Foster, who caught former offensive coordinator Randy Sanders’ eye while playing in a high school game despite the fact that Reggie Bush was playing for the opposing team, finished the season as the starter and averaged 148.4 yards per game. He had 223 yards against Vanderbilt, and despite only starting five games, he finished the season with 879 yards.
You might be thinking, well, okay, but the last five games in which Foster started were against South Carolina, Notre Dame, Memphis, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky. Not exactly powerhouse defenses. One need only go back and look at the Alabama game, however, to be convinced that he can do it against teams with a quality defense as well. Foster split time with Gerald Riggs almost the entire game against the Tide and carried the ball 14 times for 56 yards for an average of 3.8 yards.
Competing for the No. 2 running back spot are Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker. Hardesty, a 6-0, 205-pound back from New Bern, North Carolina, appeared to be ahead of Foster early last fall. Coker, a highly-touted recruit is a shifty one with great speed. Also in the mix are Ja’Kouri Williams, David Yancey, and Ricardo Kemp.
Senior Cory Anderson (6-3, 255) is a lock for the starting fullback position and should see some more action as new offensive coordinator adds some wrinkles to the Volunteer offense.
Anderson had an impressive sophomore season, but struggled a bit last year. Anderson’s backup is 6-1, 250-pound David Holbert.
The Downside. The Volunteers almost lost as many running backs to injury last year as they lost games. Hardesty tore an ACL in the fourth game against Ole Miss and was still rehabbing in the spring. He had a less serious injury to his other knee during spring practice. One of his knees then buckled during one this fall’s scrimmages, and although he initially though it was fine, the latest word is that they’re evaluating some unanticipated swelling.
After Riggs’ season-ending injury in October, Williams underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in mid-November. In December, both Foster and Coker went under the knife. Foster had both knee and shoulder surgery in the off season, and Coker had surgery to repair torn ligaments in his shoulder.
Foster, Hardesty, Coker, and Williams all missed all or most of spring practice. Foster did not go home to San Diego this summer, instead electing to stay on campus and focus on rehabbing his two surgeries and getting himself into condition. He is apparently a leaner, quicker, stronger version of the back we saw last year.
Fumbles were a grave concern last year, as the Vols lost two games by a total of four points due to three fumbles inside the ten-yard line. It is still unclear whether this tendency has been fixed, as the first all-live scrimmage this fall featured two fumbles, one by Foster and one by Yancey.
Best-case scenario: Run,
Forest Foster, run! Arian Foster averages 150 yards per game on his way to a 2,000+ yard season and fumbles only twice, both times on the right side of the field. He begins to get some Heisman attention mid-season. Coker and/or Hardesty contribute another few hundred yards each. Opposing linebackers wet their pants when they see Anderson coming at them full-speed. The team runs the ball with such efficiency that all pressure on Erik Ainge is relieved, and Ainge regains his confidence.
Worst-case scenario: All three primary backs tear a total of six ACLs in the first game against California, and the team turns to Ainge to bail them out.
Best guess: One of the running backs does not make it back into the mix, probably Hardesty. Foster shoulders the load and averages 120+ yards per game, with Coker adding another 30+ yards per game. When one is nursing injuries, the other is available. Should be the strength of the team this year, provided the offensive line comes around.