KNOXVILLE — Incoming Tennessee freshman tailbacks Bryce Brown and David Oku would excite any fan base.
Brown was ranked by Rivals.com as the nation’s No. 1 prospect last season. The same Web site ranked Oku as the country’s No. 1 all-purpose back.
Neither will simply stroll onto UT’s campus this summer and take a starting position, though. Not if Montario Hardesty, Lennon Creer and others have their way.
Hardesty, a senior-to-be, leads the current Volunteers with 13 career rushing touchdowns despite a long list of leg injuries. Creer, a junior-to-be, has an impressive 5.5 yards per carry and five scores on just 109 career attempts despite some fumbling issues.
Creer, a quiet type much like his UT and Tatum (Texas) High School teammate Denarius Moore, has steered clear of interview requests since the start of spring practice. Hardesty has no problem publicly stating his goals.
“I’ve always wanted to be the guy, the starting tailback, so I’m going to go into this like I always go into it,” Hardesty said. “I’m going to go into it ready to work, ready to show what I can do.
“Of course, I want to be the starting tailback, so that’s definitely one of my goals coming out of spring ball.”
The last four weeks of spring practice resume this afternoon. The next four Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays will present every healthy UT player opportunities to earn more playing time.
“We have a little spring depth chart that’s got, like, who’s starting, but (coaches) said that’s not really going to matter,” Hardesty said. “They want you to go out and compete and earn your job in the spring.
“All the running backs, all the coaches say, are on an even field. Whoever comes out of spring as the starting running back is going to be the starting running back.”
Unless Brown or Oku takes that spot early in preseason camp. And those two, like every Vols freshman under new head coach Lane Kiffin, will supposedly have that opportunity.
Kiffin has made multiple references to first-year players getting the first priority in preseason camp, because veterans will have a similar opportunity this spring.
“We need to find the guys on each side of the ball who give us the best chance to compete for championships,” Kiffin said. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, good or bad. It doesn’t matter how many recruiting stars you had. All that matters is who gives us the best chance right now.”
Added offensive coordinator Jim Chaney: “We’re going to play the best people. Coach Kiffin’s made that extremely clear to our entire team, and they understand that. Everybody’s competing on the same level.”
Sophomore-to-be Tauren Poole and January enrollee Toney Williams — a Chattanooga native who played high school ball in the Atlanta area — will also have opportunities to prove themselves this spring. Those two could battle Hardesty for power-back playing time, while Brown and Oku could compete with Creer for speed-back carries.
Kiffin said he’s “never going to set a limitation” on UT’s running back rotation, but he oversaw the power-speed tandem of LenDale White and Reggie Bush that helped take Southern California to a national championship.
“We may have one guy that takes all the carries, and we may split it up three ways,” Kiffin said. “We’ve got to figure out who we have and what they can do. Sometimes guys can do different things better. There’ll come a point where we start really getting into game-planning, where we’ll use guys for certain things they do really well and use guys for others. If one guy’s far and away above everybody else, we’ll play one guy.
“There is no set way of doing that. The most perfect setup is what we had at SC for a while, to have a really fast guy and have a really big guy. You have a guy you can pound them and a guy you can play with flash.”
Hardesty — a locker room leader and early favorite for a captain’s spot, according to several teammates — said all anyone can ask for is a legitimate look.
“Competition can do nothing but help the team,” Hardesty said. “I feel like if we compete hard against each other every day in practice, then when it gets to the field on Saturdays, if we make the practice field as hard as the game field, then the game is going to be easy.”