October 4, 2012
Vols get back to grass-roots ground game
It was lost among an fourth-quarter interception, a fumble and the glowing jubilation over the fact that a college football team played a full 60 minutes of football.
But for a stretch early in the fourth quarter, the game for the Vol offense was simple. There was no out-scheming by formation, no tricking, no chunking the ball downfield to make a play.
It was instead old-school or as Missouri's Sheldon Richardson likes to call it, old-man football. In the case of longtime Vol fans, it was Tennessee football. The way it's supposed to be.
It was six between-the-tackle run plays on six consecutive snaps. It was physical, hard-nosed and it was productive to the tune of 35 yards capped off by a 9-yard Rajion Neal touchdown. In other words it was a moment. A key moment for an offense ridiculed, criticized and lambasted for being soft, untalented at tailback and weak in the trenches.
"It felt good I can say that," offensive line coach Sam Pittman said. "When he went 9 on the power play and didn't get touched that felt good. It's satisfying that we were able to do that. We had minus-20 yards the last two years against those guys so it felt good. But again, we have a lot of work to do. The great thing that you are seeing over the year is that we have gotten better from when the season started to this point. If we can continue to do that then we will have a pretty good line before the season is over."
The criticism over the last year has had plenty of merit. In two SEC games, the Vols have now rushed for 280 yards. That's 310 more yards than a year ago in the first two conference games that both produced negative-yardage days. It took the Vols seven SEC games a year ago to amass more than 280 yards on the ground.
"I didn't know how much we were beat up last year. I didn't realize that (at first). But you could feel it as you got to know them better," Pittman said. "You have to have something good happen to you before you can start to feel the other way. I didn't realize how bad it was. Now, I think we are starting to feel like we can go compete against a lot of people."
To put in prospective how good the Vols have been running the ball, they have 52 yards less than than the defense has given up. And that includes five touchdown runs of 50 yards or more by the Vols opponents.
Head coach Derek Dooley has been extremely protective of his offensive line this season. Asking they be judged on their production this year only and not on the "sins or mistakes" of the past.
But some questions beckon: How does an offensive line who couldn't move anyone a year ago in accumulating just 1,081 yards on the ground put up 887 yards in five games this season? Led by a tailback who's fourth in the SEC in rushing? Who wasn't good enough to play running back a year ago so he was moved to receiver?
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said it's all about being older.
"Growth and development, physical, mental, emotional," Chaney said. "Every type of growth is key to development. They are juniors. Look around at all the great rushing teams. How many freshman and sophomores are in their offensive line. That would be interesting. I would surmise not a lot. I think you run the ball when you have grown men playing on the line with a little more maturity about them. Our kids are demonstrating that week end and weak out. They are juniors. They have been around for 3 years now."
The other difference is commitment. Not just to calling runs. But a commitment daily to making the ground game better. The head coach hired a running backs coach in Jay Graham. Fair or not, that move alone showed a commitment to be a better running team. Every back, particularly Neal, has praised Graham's ability to teach him the little things.
Then in perhaps the quickest hire in school history, Dooley chose Pittman to be his offensive line coach. Pittman's simple schemes and daily commitment to being physical on the practice field has paid dividends.
"I think we are playing faster," Pittman said. "When I came in we tried to turn them loose and let them go. We gave them some fits where we wanted them and then told them to go play fast. That takes a little bit of pressure off of you. It showed that it worked. Then I think the experience is a factor. I think they are playing better just because they have seen more game time and the other reason is that I think now they have confidence. You can't play the game if you don't have confidence. You just can't do it. Whether they can or whether they can't, they believe they can and that's a big, big part of it. (Getting confidence) That was the hard thing to get done."
And Saturday night it made six-straight runs to the end zone easy.
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