KNOXVILLE — Montario Hardesty didn’t need to hear the first question.
Approached by a reporter in the University of Tennessee’s weight room last week, the Volunteers’ junior tailback put a wide smile on his face.
“I know, I know,” Hardesty said. “How am I feeling? Right?”
Hardesty knows that’s always the first question to a gifted player with a long injury history.
“I feel good, man,” Hardesty continued. “Really, I do. There’s nothing bothering me. Honestly.”
His first three years on UT’s campus have been plagued by lower-leg injuries — knees, shins, ankles and feet. He was granted a medical redshirt after tearing an ACL two games into 2005, so he still has two seasons of eligibility to fulfill the potential that made Vols coach Phillip Fulmer giddy when he signed him out of New Bern (N.C.) High School.
Though Hardesty has played in 23 of UT’s 27 games the past two seasons, he’s never had a clean bill of health. He missed five games last year with two “high ankle sprains,” and he claimed to develop stress fractures from pushing too hard on his way back. Eventually, he was shut down in spring practice and ordered not to run for nearly four months.
“I just kept playing through my injuries, because I always get sick of just watching my teammates play,” he said. “But (trainers) convinced me that the best thing was to rest, so I did it.
“Now I’m glad I did it, though, because I feel great. I’ve finally gotten back to feeling good again. I’m ready to push my body this last month and get myself ready for camp. I’m definitely healthy now, and I’m ready to be healthy for this whole season.”
Starting tailback Arian Foster claims that “no one outside our locker room knows how good Montario can be,” but everyone has seen occasionally spectacular glimpses. Hardesty’s 43-yard touchdown against California in 2006 — his first game back from a torn ACL — is one of the most impressive individual plays in program history. He had 146 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries in back-to-back victories over Georgia and Mississippi State last season.
Fulmer consistently praises Hardesty’s work ethic and optimism in the face of setbacks, offering only a few complaints about his propensity to push too much, too soon during rehabilitation.
Hardesty protests his “injury-prone” label, but he knows there’s only one way to put that label behind him.
“None of these injuries have ever made me feel like I shouldn’t play football again,” he said. “I’ve felt good going into every year, but I just keep getting hurt. It’s never the same injury, so I think it’s just a little bad luck.
“It’s all good, though. I’ll come back every time. I’m a football player. This is what I do. I’m just ready to show all these people what I can do when I’m healthy. I know people are doubting me, but they’ll see.”
Lincoln not picked
UT sophomore place-kicker Daniel Lincoln, named first-team All-America last season by ESPN.com, was not among the seven Vols on the SEC coaches’ three preseason teams released Monday. Senior punter Britton Colquitt also was left off, but he’s suspended him for the Vols’ first five games following an offseason DUI arrest.
Ainge already starting?
Fulmer said last week that an NFL coaching friend told him Erik Ainge has a “great chance” to start this season as a rookie with the New York Jets.
“Whether that’s really happening up there or not, for us to replace a young man like that is very difficult,” Fulmer said.
Ainge, considered by some analysts as a late second- or early-third-round draft pick, slipped to the Jets in the fifth round. He signed a four-year contract last week and received a $165,000 signing bonus, but he’s behind Kellen Clemens and Knoxville native Chad Pennington on the team’s depth chart.
Individual tickets for four UT home games — including the Vols’ Sept. 13 home opener against UAB — were made available for purchase Monday, according to an athletic department release. Tickets also are available for Northern Illinois (Oct. 4), Wyoming (Nov. 8) and Kentucky (Nov. 29).
Athletic director Mike Hamilton said those games haven’t sold out because those four opponents’ fans didn’t use their full away-game allotments. Hamilton said there also are a “very limited number” of single-seat, nonrenewable season tickets available.