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November 13, 2013

OL committed to finish

What Tennessee's veteran offensive linemen talked about after Tuesday's practice was personified only minutes before.

Working with a couple true freshmen quarterbacks, Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson, and another redshirt freshman, Nathan Peterman, three members of Tennessee's offensive line were staying after practice to work on snap cadence.

On a Tuesday night of a bye week, with little more than a middle-of-the-road bowl game left to play for, the Vols' veteran line realized the importance of eliminating mental, pre-snap errors with extra work after practice.

For the likes of Zach Fulton, James Stone and Ja'Wuan James - the three four-year contributors on the offensive line, Tennessee's most veteran position group - leading by example is needed now more than ever.

The Vols have the bye week this week, Vanderbilt next week and Kentucky in the season-finale. And they have little margin for error if they want to get back to .500 and back to a bowl game.

"We're the most experienced group on the team, so a lot of it is our job to keep guys spirit high," James said.

"Don't let anybody keep their head down. Don't let Auburn beat us twice. We have to have a great week this week and another great week preparing for Vanderbilt."

The three were true freshmen in 2010, when Tennessee reached the Music City Bowl under then-first year head coach Derek Dooley.

Outside of those three, and other members of this senior class, just about every thing and everyone - including the head coach - has turned over since then.

But, as they told it Tuesday, getting back to the postseason isn't as much about them as it is about the Tennessee program, everyone from contributing true freshmen to first-year head coach Butch Jones.

"It would mean a lot for this entire senior class to leave Tennessee with a winning season and to leave Coach Jones with a winning season in his first season," Stone said.

"It would feel good for me, but it would definitely be great for this program," James added. "Coming the next few years, help with recruits, help just with Coach Jones building our foundation and the teams to come."

They've been here before, though. And it didn't work out so well.

The three were a part of the last two Tennessee teams that went into November with a similar 'win and you're in mindset.' That winning never materialized.

The Vols were 3-5 going into the final month of the season last year. A 2-2 record in November left them on the outside looking in at bowl games.

It was the same story in 2011: Started November 3-5, finished November 5-7.

But this year, they said, is different.

"I think we have a better chance of doing it, honestly," Fulton said. "We're a better team, we communicate a lot better and we're getting along a lot better than we used to."

"I feel like this team is still hungry," Stone said. "Just the mindset of these coaches going forward, the way the team is pushing each other, I feel like it's just a more focused team this year. We have to go out and execute on the football field."

But, as James put it, going 2-0 over the final two games and getting back to a bowl game is less about talking and more about doing.

"We just have to go out and win games," he said. "We come out and we work all year to win games.

"We've got an opportunity to win two, so we need to win two."


GOOD, NOT GREAT

The numbers jumped dramatically between Missouri and Auburn, but the outcome was the same.

Tennessee rushed for 226 yards on 43 tries in the 32-point loss to Auburn last week. Two weeks ago the Vols rushed for 94 yards in a 28-point loss to Missouri.

There was improvement, but there was nothing close to a feeling of satisfaction.

"That was a lot better," James said of the line's run-game performance against Auburn. "Now we just have to get on the same page as the running backs in the run game. Them reading us, them making us right, us making them right.

"At the end of the day we want a win, so nobody was happy; Disappointed you didn't win," he added. "But I feel like we played a lot better, a lot more physical, especially in the run game."

Tennessee averaged 5.3 yards per carry against Auburn, a week removed from a 3.9 per rush average at Missouri.

Butch Jones noted that the run game was efficient against Auburn, but still left a lot to be desired.

"I thought we ran the ball with a higher level of consistency than we had in the past, but we still lacked the big play," Jones said after practice Tuesday. "We were getting 4 or 5 yards, we ran the ball efficiently, which is our goal, but also we need a 30-yard run, a 40-yard run.

"We need more chunk yardage when we run the football. I thought from an efficiency standpoint, we got back to running the football and that was great to see. And we're going to need that next week."

LESS JUMP START

Tennessee was flagged 13 times for 95 yards over its last two games, many of those starting with the offensive line jumping offsides.

"It's extremely frustrating," Stone said of the false starts. "That's why today after practice we were getting some extra work in with the quarterbacks, just getting cadence, just to get some extra work with everybody and being on time. Especially at home, it's not excuses to have mental errors like that."

Getting some of the consistency back, Jones said, starts with eliminating those pre-snap errors.

"Especially going into these last two weeks. We need to be consistent for this football team, because I feel like when we play with consistency, our offensive is able to execute.

"When we have missteps, pre-snap errors and mistakes like that, it really sets our offense back. And we need to be consistent so our offense can lean on our offensive line."



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