KNOXVILLE — Even in answering a question about his explosive passing game, Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is unable to ignore it.
Considering how inept the Volunteers were at running the football last season, it’s too glaring to avoid.
“I feel like the confidence level in our passing game is there,” Chaney said last month. “I look back at the Cincinnati game. We left that field [with] a nice swagger about us and felt comfortable with who we were. Then the Florida game happened, the injury [to star receiver Justin Hunter] happened and we lost a little confidence.
“But I think that’ll come back real quickly. I feel like our kids understand we know how to throw the ball and we’ll be able to do that. It’s the run game where all the time needs to be spent right now.”
How UT moves forward in fixing the problem will continue Monday, when the Vols begin spring practice.
The Vols were 116th nationally in rushing offense last season. UT’s 90 yards per game were last in the SEC and more than 30 yards behind 11th-place Kentucky. Including sacks, UT averaged less than 3 yards per carry, and tailbacks Tauren Poole and Marlin Lane each averaged 3.7 per carry.
Coach Derek Dooley and Chaney reiterated throughout last season that the entire offense shared some of the blame, though the line might have taken the most heat despite improving in pass protection. Tackles Dallas Thomas, Ja’Wuan James and right Zach Fulton started every game, while Alex Bullard, James Stone and Marcus Jackson all started games at either left guard or center. Though the Vols lost no offensive linemen, they have a new position coach, Sam Pittman.
“I would say this, more than anything, what stood out is the way they work,” the former North Carolina assistant said last month. “They’ve been busting their tails. Any time you’ve got those type of characters in that offensive line room, I think you’re going to have some success.”
With a forgettable 2011 performance in the rearview mirror and a new coach, spring practice brings with it the feeling of a clean slate for the maligned unit.
“I have basically no evaluation on the freshmen — the [Kyler] Kerbysons and the [Mack] Crowders and those guys, and even [Antonio “Tiny” Richardson] for that matter,” Pittman said. “There’s not a large evaluation. For those kids, it’s good that I don’t have an opinion about any of them.
“I’m trying not to have an opinion about who I think’s really good, who’s not very good, those things. We’re just trying to go out there, coach them all and figure it out by the end of spring ball.”
Poole is the only departure from a backfield that will have a new coach in former Vol Jay Graham, the first full-time coach at the position under Dooley.
After playing tailback as a freshman, Rajion Neal was moved to receiver last season, though he still got the occasional handoff on a toss, reverse or end-around. He caught four passes for 125 yards and a touchdown in the season finale, but he’ll return to tailback for spring practice.
Lane battled pain in his left knee as a freshman and underwent surgery in December. He’s expected to be at 100 percent for spring, and the Vols hope he can become again the dynamic runner he was before a severe knee injury his junior year of high school. Sophomore Tom Smith and freshman early enrollee Alden Hill are the Vols’ other full-time scholarship tailbacks.
Chaney, who joked he’d considered jumping off a balcony overlooking UT’s indoor practice field when the topic was broached, suggested the solution is simply an attitude adjustment.
“From a schematic standpoint is there a lot of changes that need to be made? Probably not,” he said. “We just need to do the things that we want to do better. We didn’t run well, we didn’t block well and those are the two things that are important when you’re trying to get it done. It’s got to be done with the right attitude and the proper mechanics and all those things.
“The schemes are second base. Let’s get to first base, and you do that by learning to play football with leverage and with a little bit of an attitude. We’ve got to develop a little bit better persona when it comes to running the ball.”
With quarterback Tyler Bray, one 1,000-yard receiver in Da’Rick Rogers and another who likely would have reached that plateau in Hunter, the pieces of UT’s passing game are in place. Hunter won’t participate in any contact this spring, and highly touted junior college receiver Cordarrelle Patterson won’t arrive until summer. Vincent Dallas and Zach Rogers are the only other returning receivers who made any catches last year.
With all of those factors, the Vols could spend most of 15 spring practices on the ground. Whatever the plan, Chaney knows the Vols must find a physicality up front that was lacking last season.
“I think any time you watch a run game that’s not being effective, you’re not being physical enough,” he said. “That’s the first thing that stands out that’s glaring all the time. We want to try to be a more physical football team. I’m going to try as a play-caller to put them in better positions from an X’s and O’s standpoint.
“Ultimately, they’ve got to go out and win their individual battles against who they’ve got to block, and that usually gets down to fundamentals, techniques and your mindset going into the ball game. You’ve got to have that swagger about you that you want to whup his hind end. That’s what we’ve got to develop a little bit more of.”
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 ...