KNOXVILLE -- It's understandable for Tennessee football fans to get excited about heralded freshman tailbacks David Oku and Bryce Brown, assuming Brown's amateur status is cleared by the NCAA this season.
But it wasn't so long ago that coaches, teammates and fans shared similar excitement for a young, healthy Montario Hardesty.
"No one here has forgotten, especially us older guys," fellow fifth-year senior Dan Williams said.
Williams suggested the Volunteers' 5-6 season in 2005 could have gone differently if Hardesty hadn't torn a knee ligament after just six carries.
"You never know what would have happened if Montario had never gotten hurt versus Ole Miss," Williams said. "Let me tell you, when he first got here, I was like, 'Man, who is this guy? Are you sure he's a freshman?'
"When he's healthy, all I can really say is, 'Watch out.'"
And Hardesty said he's finally as close to 100 percent healthy as he was the day he stepped on campus from New Bern (N.C.) High School, where he accumulated nearly 4,000 rushing yards his final two seasons.
Former Vols coach Phillip Fulmer raved about Hardesty as soon as he publicly could, rewinding and watching one particular play over and over during a February 2005 recruiting celebration.
"Just look at this kid!" Fulmer said, according to someone present at the party.
Some suggested Hardesty could emerge from former Red Bank High star Gerald Riggs' season-ending injury and amass 1,000 yards before the end of his freshman season.
Four years later, the 6-foot, 215-pound Hardesty has just 1,046 career yards.
"You can't get all sorry for yourself and get caught up in thinking, 'Why me?'" Hardesty said. "Everything happens for a reason. The older I get, the more I understand that."
Hardesty's torn knee ligament seemed a fluky nuisance by the 2006 season opener, when the redshirt freshman tore though several California defenders for a 43-yard touchdown.
The injuries never stopped, though, from pulled muscles to multiple ankle sprains and lower leg stress fractures and frequently sore knees. His production has decreased the past three seasons -- from 384 yards to 373 to 321 -- and his career average of 3.8 yards per carry is pedestrian by any standard.
But teammates say he has an indomitable spirit.
"He's one of the toughest players I've ever been around," fifth-year senior defensive linemen Wes Brown said.
Added Williams: "There have been times when I thought, 'No way 'Tario will play this week,' and he plays. I used to be surprised, but I'm not anymore."
Fifth-year senior linebacker Rico McCoy said "there ain't nobody out here who deserves (success) more than Montario."
Hardesty at least once -- and possibly twice -- gave himself a lower leg stress fracture by refusing to sit out of practice and games with nasty ankle sprains.
"He's that type of competitor and player," McCoy said. "When he had those injuries, he never let them heal good. He just kept saying, 'Coach, I can do it. I can do it. I can play.' And they played him, because he's a good player. He's just a real tough guy, man. He should have a great season this year."
New UT head coach Lane Kiffin and his staff have been impressed with Hardesty since arriving in December. He's almost always one of the first players showing up in team meetings and seven-on-seven drills. He's practically lived in the training room year-round, which has clearly helped him regain much of the speed that injuries stole.
He doesn't volunteer that information. Teammates reveal it.
"I just try to go out and just do what I do," Hardesty said. "I think the fellows see that I want to win. This is my last go-around, so I definitely want to win, so during the summer, I just went out and I did everything 100 percent. I went into the weight room hard. I went into seven-on-sevens hard.
"I don't feel like to be a leader you have to do all that talking and stuff. I just feel like people are going to follow leaders. I feel like I just go out and do what I do, and people will come along on the boat. I just want to win. That's it. That's all I care about."
And that, Hardesty said, is why he was so visibly displeased with his four-carry, 12-yard workload in last Saturday's scrimmage.
Kiffin hasn't named a starting tailback, but Hardesty has been called upon first in nearly every team period and scrimmage situation. And Hardesty said the defense's dominance in the team's second major scrimmage triggered his competitive instincts.
UT's coaches wanted to see the younger backs respond to a game-like workload, and Hardesty's not-so-subtle sideline actions suggested a disagreement with that decision.
"I guess I was a little frustrated, but I can understand the reasoning," Hardesty said days later. "Me being a senior on this team, I've got to just step back sometimes and just kind of encourage the offense. I think the biggest thing for me is us playing well as a group, and I wanted to go in there and kind of redeem the (first-team) offense, and I didn't have that opportunity to.
"But I think our coaches are going to do what's best for the team. I'm trusting every decision they're making right now."
Kiffin wasn't bothered by Hardesty's actions.
"No matter how competitive a guy is, no matter how good he is, I think competition brings out the best in all of us," Kiffin said. "I don't care how old you are. That's an example. Montario was not happy we pulled him early. He wasn't happy with that. He wanted to get back out there.
"I don't know that that would necessarily be the case if Bryce Brown and David Oku weren't here. Him seeing those guys I think has made him better."
Hardesty said Brown, Oku and sophomore Tauren Poole all have impressed him. But unlike them, he won't be back next season, and Kiffin has admitted that it will be tough to rotate four tailbacks in a game.
"When the opportunity is there, you've got to take advantage of it," Hardesty said. "I think I started that going into conditioning and spring ball. I tried to just come out hard. Coach Kiffin said no one had a (starting) position, so I just wanted to come out and show him what I had. We all have. I think all this competition that we've had is going to make us a better team come the first game.
"Us seniors, we've put four or five years into this, and we've been through a lot of bad stuff, and this is our last chance to kind of put Tennessee back where it was when we got here."