KNOXVILLE -- The University of Tennessee football coaches feel they have a three-part solution for one big problem the team had last season.
With a first-year starter at tailback, no complementary back and an offensive line that had just one player with starting experience and three true freshmen, the Volunteers' ground game had more moments of ineptitude than flashes of brilliance and consistency.
Now that their top three receiving targets are gone and sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray no longer is a secret to opponents, the Vols know the rushing attack must be improved this season.
"We definitely need the running game to win games," senior tailback Tauren Poole said. "We can't rely only on Tyler's little bitty arm to throw the ball every single play, even though he's talented enough. We're going to need to run the football."
Last year the Vols were the SEC's worst rushing team. They averaged less than 2 yards per attempt in eight league games.
Though the 5-foot-10, 215-pound Poole was one of just six players in the league to break the 1,000-yard mark and had solid games against Oregon (162 yards), LSU (109) and Alabama (117), he had his struggles. He rushed for a combined 96 yards in losses to Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina.
"Tauren is everything that you want in a player from his drive to be his best," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "I wish we had 100 Tauren Pooles [because of] his commitment to the program and how he represents Tennessee.
"He's got good size and speed for his position. He was inconsistent last year, [but] he was productive as a whole. He had some games where he was remarkable. He had other games where it was hard on him. I think a lot of things go into that. It was his first year playing. He wants to do well so bad; he wants to perform so well. It took him a while to get settled into the position."
Since he ran behind a virtually new line -- including freshmen Ja'Wuan James, James Stone and Zach Fulton -- Poole's season could be considered impressive. UT also had no other back emerge to help him in Dooley's preferred two-back system: Rajion Neal and David Oku combined for just 136 yards on 51 carries (2.7 average) against BCS opponents.
After Oku decided to transfer, Neal had a solid spring, though the sophomore will have to fend off freshmen Marlin Lane and Tom Smith for the spot as Poole's sidekick when the Vols open preseason practice Tuesday.
"We also need to help [Poole] a little bit with another back," Dooley said. "I think it's hard. There's only a few guys a year who can go out there and carry that load 12 games and take that kind of pounding. I've always believed in a two-back system where you've got another back who can get in there, where you can manage your player so he can be productive consistently throughout the season."
The source of the most optimism for the improvement of UT's run game is the line, a group that entered last season with only then-senior Jarrod Shaw's three career starts. Now there are four starters back.
"Last year they were very rough around the edges, still trying to figure themselves out," senior defensive lineman Malik Jackson said. "Playing with them from last year's practice and then this [spring], it's just night and day. They know their calls; they communicate with each other a lot better. They're going to be great."
Dooley has spoken positively about his young linemen, who after their season of experience still needed the summer workout program to develop the strength to go with their good size. Left tackle Dallas Thomas is the group's lightweight at 305 pounds.
The line could have two things it didn't last season: depth and flexibility. The spring additions of Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard and freshman guard Marcus Jackson and the arrival of tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson (6-6, 325) give the Vols more bodies than they had last year.
"It's going to be a lot more competition, but competition makes everybody better," said Thomas, the line's senior member as a fourth-year junior. "We're bringing those [new] guys along. We came together in the spring when Alex got here. We took him in under us, and he fit right in and he's like one of [our] brothers."
Bullard and Stone give the Vols the chance to mix and match in attempts to get the best five linemen on the field, though UT would prefer a set group for the purpose of continuity. Stone started games at guard and center a season ago, and Bullard can play both tackle and center.
"I don't think people realize," Poole said, "how smart James [Stone] is. I think he can play any position on the O-line, and it's crazy because he knows what [other] people are doing. He's ahead of himself.
"They're out of that whole freshman mentality. They know they can be good no matter their youth. They have confidence in themselves."
Despite the improved line, the task of having a better running game than a year ago ultimately falls on Poole, Dooley said, and that's something the tailback understands.
"We've got to do a better job of blocking for him, and we will, [but] we're not going to be a good football team if Tauren is not productive for us," Dooley said. "We need him to be consistent, productive, and I know he's committed to doing that."
Said Poole: "I have to be the best back I can be, and that comes from how I work and my attitude."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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