published Thursday, December 24th, 2009

Hardesty keeps focus on team


by Wes Rucker

KNOXVILLE -- Guard Jacques McClendon knows exactly how many yards fellow senior Montario Hardesty needs to tie Travis Stephens' University of Tennessee single-season rushing record.

"One hundred and fifty-eight," the former Baylor School star said last week.

Indeed, Hardesty is 158 yards from tying Stephens' 1,464 mark in 2001.

But, like essentially everything else in Hardesty's career, there are large obstacles in the way.

The Volunteers have practiced the past few weeks without a full-time running backs coach, and Hardesty's final game -- the Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia Tech -- will be played on the Georgia Dome's artificial turf.

Hardesty's leg injuries have been well-documented the past five years, but his playing surface preference is equally well known to those in the program. He would probably rather eat a peanut butter and motor oil sandwich than play on turf.

"I can't lie. I hate the stuff," Hardesty said earlier this season.

Hardesty gave a more diplomatic response earlier this week when asked a similar question in front of a large group of reporters. He said two weeks off following UT's win at Kentucky -- one for the whole team, and an extra for him -- replenished his legs to better battle the turf.

"After I hurt myself a couple of times, this stuff is just bad on your joints and stuff, man," Hardesty said while pointing down to the turf in UT's indoor facility. "I had a little sore knee at the beginning of the season, and it's been hard to just keep pounding it on the turf over and over again. But all the little bumps and bruises have healed up, so I'm ready to go."

Hardesty's definition of "ready" isn't share by all players, though. The two-time UT captain wowed teammates during last season's Wyoming game by insisting he play special teams despite a combination of injuries that ruled him out of the running back rotation.

McClendon described Hardesty that day as a player "not physically able to play."

"He barely could warm up, but he still came out there and played for us and showed that it's not about him, it's about the team," McClendon continued. "That's obviously why he was voted a team captain when he wasn't even a starter. He's a team-first kind of guy, and he lays it on the line. He takes that beating and those 38 carries for the whole team, because he knows it's more than that No. 2 he wears on his chest; it's the 'T' he wears on his helmet."

Consistency helped Hardesty near 1,000 yards this season, but a Mariano Rivera-like close pushed him close to Stephens' record. He set and reset career highs in the last season regular season games with 171 yards against Vanderbilt and 179 at Kentucky. The player once known for injuries and unfulfilled promise had 72 runs and three receptions in the past two games and only briefly left the lineup when he lost a contact lens.

"We'd love for him to get (the record), because he's been the backbone of this team," McClendon said. "Any time we've needed a first down or needed those tough 2 or 3 yards, we've been able to depend on Montario Hardesty. For him to be able to break that, that would be the best compliment to this offense and to this team and to himself, for how's he's persevered through all this adversity."

UT senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton said "everybody wants (Hardesty) to break the record, but all he talks about is winning the game."

"That's what makes him such a great player, and a great teammate," Crompton added.

Lane Kiffin had no loyalty to any player when he arrived in Knoxville -- and he established that in his first team meeting -- but it didn't take the first-year UT head coach much time to declare Hardesty the feature back and centerpiece of his offense. And the coach's complimentary words have grown each week.

"We're not anywhere near where want to be yet as a program, but a room full of guys like him is exactly what we want," Kiffin said. "When we have 85 Montario Hardesty's -- 85 guys with his talent, his work ethic, his maturity on and off the field, just that whole package -- then we'll be where we want to be."

Hardesty's legacy won't change much with or without the single-season rushing mark, according to several coaches and teammates. And the player said he simply wants to leave with a bowl win that sets a firmer foundation for the program he's grown to love.

"That would be a great accomplishment for me, but I've already reached most of my individual goals ... so the best thing for me is to go out there and get a win," Hardesty said. "If getting that single-season record and getting the win goes hand in hand, I'll be very excited and very elated about it. But for me, my biggest goal is to go out there and get a win against Virginia Tech.

"We've come a long, long way, man, but all I'm thinking about if finishing this season and finishing my career the right way -- and that's with a win. If I get that record or not, let's just win the game. That's all that matters, man."

about Wes Rucker...

Twitter - @wesrucker Facebook - /tfpvolsbeat

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