Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Want to know what Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin is looking for in a football player?
Look no further than senior tailback Montario Hardesty, who leads the SEC in rushing with an average of 121.2 yards per game.
The production is nice, but it goes much deeper than that for Kiffin.
It’s the way Hardesty competes on every snap, be it against the scout team or the No. 1-ranked team.
It’s the way he’s always ready no matter how little or how much he’s been involved in the game to that point.
It’s the way he’s endured through a litany of injuries, including three different surgeries on his knees.
It’s the way he plays, leads and does with the good of the team always front and center.
It’s the way he runs as if every carry were his last, which is probably why he's only lost 11 yards all season.
“He embodies exactly how we want to be as a team,” Kiffin said.
Hardesty, who earned his undergraduate degree in May in sport management, has already carried the ball an SEC-high 84 times this season. As much as anything, he’s determined to shake the durability concerns that have dogged him throughout his career. He’s never really made it through a season completely healthy and never carried it more than 107 times in a season.
He had his knee drained following the Ohio game and is also battling a sore shoulder, but Hardesty isn’t about to slow down now. He’s too busy soaking up his senior season.
With Saturday’s key matchup with Auburn looming, Hardesty took some time this week to talk about his season, the Vols’ new coaching staff and what’s kept him going:
How fresh do you feel after toting it 84 times in four games?
Montario Hardesty: I feel great, couldn’t feel better. Our offensive line is getting more comfortable with our scheme, and I feel like we’re getting better as a team. That’s the main thing, the team. I feel like we’re fixing to take off as we hit this SEC stretch. I’m excited about what’s coming up.
What’s been your take on Kiffin and the new coaching staff?
MH: For me, the best thing about this coaching staff is the opportunity they give everybody to compete and the competition they’ve brought to our team. With them, it’s not already set. It’s not what you’ve done in years past. They let you go on the field and prove yourself. There’s an energy they bring to the practice and to each game day that’s made us all better.
Do you just want to scream when somebody asks you about all the injuries you’ve endured?
MH: It comes with the territory. I’ve had a lot of injuries in my career. I understand that. I’ve never made it through a full season healthy except for last season. It wasn’t about my health last season, but I haven’t let any of it get to me. I feel like everything happens for a reason, and I’ve continued to believe and continued to work hard.
Do you think what you’ve done this season proves that you’re not injury-prone?
MH: I don’t want to jump out there just yet. We’re only a third of the way into the season. There’s a lot more football to be played, and I plan on being there for it.
What was it like all offseason hearing about all the touted freshman running backs the Vols were signing. Did it drive you that they went out and signed one of top running back prospects in the country in Bryce Brown?
MH: It wouldn’t say it drove me. There was a lot of talk about Bryce and David (Oku) coming in and starting for us. The way I looked at it was that they were going to have to be pretty good to take my job. This was my senior year, and just because we signed some good running backs wasn’t going to make me work any harder. I push myself harder than anybody else can. I’ve never been afraid of competition, and like I said, the best thing about this staff is that they believe in real competition.
Anybody in particular that you patterned your running style after?
MH: I grew up a big Walter Payton fan. He ran every play the same way, with everything he had. That’s the way I want to run, giving my all every play. That’s the way I learned to play this game and the way I love to play this game.
You’re coming off the second 100-yard rushing game of your career. How realistic is a 1,000-yard season?
MH: I have some goals that I really don’t want to talk about right now. The goal I will talk about is that I want to win. Yeah, I’d like to lead the SEC rushing and lead the SEC in touchdowns and all that. But the bigger picture for me is the team. If I help our team improve, all the individual accolades will take care of themselves.
Is the real Tennessee team the one that played Florida into the fourth quarter at the Swamp or the one who lost at home to UCLA?
MH: I can’t really say. I just know we’re a team that’s not going to back down and will fight to the end. That’s a tribute to the leadership on this team and the type of guys we have on this team. We’re still trying to get our identity, and with some big SEC games coming up, what better time than now to prove what type of team we are.
Eddie George reached out to you and congratulated you after watching you run at Florida. What did that mean to you?
MH: He was always one of my favorite running backs, so that was nice to hear him say what he did. He just told me he was a big fan of what I was doing and to keep playing with that same passion. He challenged me to take it to the next level and told me to give him a call if I ever never needed anything.
Has Kiffin been the right fit for the Tennessee program and can you see the Vols winning big under him sooner rather than later?
MH: He’s a great coach, and just the energy that he’s brought to this program has been what we all needed. It’s just crazy how much energy all the coaches bring. He’s going to continue to bring great players in here, and he’s definitely going to build the program back up.
What about Kiffin attracts top prospects to him?
MH: The first thing is that you know you’re going to get a chance to play right away. It’s going to be up to you to get on the field.
Was it not always that way at Tennessee?
MH: I’m not sure it always has been, but it’s definitely going to be like that with coach Kiffin.”