KNOXVILLE — Most people might have been surprised by Tennessee's game plan against Jarvis Jones.
The Volunteers coaches' decision to leave the task of stopping Georgia's All-America outside linebacker and a certain first-round NFL draft pick to their tackle tandem of Antonio "Tiny" Richardson and Ja'Wuan James showed the confidence they have in their offensive line.
Coming off their best all-around game, Tennessee's front five are making progress in making everyone else believe what they already knew.
"The thing is, man, some people outside of this building may not have as much as confidence in us," Richardson said Tuesday morning after Tennessee's practice. "But we know what we have and we know what we can do."
The performance did come in a loss, and Georgia did gear its defense toward limiting the big-play abilities of receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. Yet it's hard to ignore how Tennessee's line performed against a defensive front with likely at least two NFL first-rounders.
Tennessee ran for 197 yards, its most against a Southeastern Conference defense since 226- and 201-yard performances against Vanderbilt and Kentucky at the end of 2009 season. The best rushing performances against SEC teams under Dooley were 138 yards against Arkansas in 2011 and 159 yards against Alabama in 2010, when 59 yards came on one Tauren Poole run.
The Vols finished with minus-30 yards against Florida and Georgia last year.
The only sack the Vols allowed Saturday was when quarterback Tyler Bray uncharacteristically tried to scramble out of the pocket. Jones finished with a quiet eight tackles and half a tackle for loss. He had wrecked Missouri with nine tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.
"I think it's a lot of things," said Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, who in 2010 inherited offensive linemen with three career combined starts. "It's size and talent. They're talented guys; they have a lot of experience as a unit; they have a lot of good chemistry and just the physical maturity that you've seen over the last two years."
After finishing 116th nationally and last in the SEC in rushing in 2011, this season the Vols are 49th and eighth, respectively, with an average that's increased almost 90 yards.
"It's everything kind of coming together, and it's really what your goal is every position," Dooley said. "That was a group that was beat up for a couple of years. They were beat up last year publicly for our performance."
When fifth-year senior Dallas Thomas took over as the Vols' starting left tackle two seasons ago, he never came out of games. Tennessee didn't have that option. Now the Vols are playing seven offensive linemen regularly.
"We never did that, but hey, I like it," Thomas joked. "It keeps me fresh. I don't have a problem with it at all."
Sophomore left guard Marcus Jackson, a five-game starter in 2011, and junior Alex Bullard, who started all 12 games last season after transferring from Notre Dame, each played more than 20 snaps against Georgia. Bullard lost his starting job at center, but he's now the Vols' utility man who's used as a sixth offensive lineman in certain packages.
The Vols see Jackson, a former four-star recruit, as a starter because of his consistency, power and practice performances.
"Marcus is a good player," Richardson said. "If Dallas went down right now, Marcus would come in there and start the thing. Marcus can come in there and play any time.
"He's the type of guy you have to get him some reps."
Tennessee's run game was on a good pace against Florida, but offensive coordinator Jim Chaney admitted he made the Vols one-dimensional with his play selection. There was no such mistake against Georgia. Even Bray, who probably would prefer Tennessee throws it every play, noticed what was happening.
"At one point talking on the phone with Coach [Chaney] I was like, 'Keep running the ball; don't stop,'" Bray said.
Tennessee capped a drive that made it a one-touchdown score early in the fourth quarter with six consecutive run plays. The offensive line and tailbacks Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal finished the last 30 yards of the drive. Dooley said Monday it was "fun to watch."
Richardson said it needs to become the norm.
"Of course that's what you want it to look like every time," the 6-foot-6, 332-pound sophomore said. "However the game goes it depends, but that's exactly how you want it to look. You know, 180 on the ground, that's pretty darn good.
"We just feel like we can play against anybody right now, and the thing is is not to get overconfident and just continue to work. There's nothing wrong with it as long as you're continuing to improve. That's what we're going to do."
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 ...