KNOXVILLE - Alex Bullard's knowledge of how the University of Tennessee and tailback Tauren Poole ran the football last season is limited.
After all, the Volunteers' sophomore left guard was at Notre Dame last year before arriving at UT in January as a walk-on.
"T-Poole rushed for over 1,000 yards, so they had to be doing something right," Bullard said after practice Tuesday morning.
As coach Derek Dooley, Poole and others have said throughout the offseason, though, consistency was missing despite Poole's impressive numbers. For every solid game Poole had, he had a so-so or bad game behind an offensive line that started three true freshmen and entered 2010 with just three career starts, all by senior Jarrod Shaw.
The general consensus about the running game this year is that it should be better and more consistent.
"I'm hoping it's improved, and it should be," Dooley said. "We've got more guys who have played on the offensive line who we feel like are going to be really good players for us. Then we also have a guy who ran for over 1,000 yards last year, which last year he hadn't. We feel like we have a little better stage of backups to help him.
"Given all that, we should be running the ball better. I'll be disappointed if we don't."
Montana, which the Vols will host in Saturday's season opener, was fourth in the Big Sky Conference against the run last year, allowing 150 yards per game. The Grizzlies' two-deep defensive line averages just 263 pounds, so UT likely won't get a true gauge of how much the rushing attack has improved Saturday.
Poole has expressed excitement to run behind a promising, more experienced offensive line, and Bullard said there is confidence in the run game.
"We need to continue to improve," said the 6-foot-2, 309-pounder. "We're going to have one of the biggest lines in the league, so there's really no excuse why we shouldn't be mauling people off the ball. Coach [Jim] Chaney's going to get us in the right plays, and he's an outstanding offensive coordinator, so if he calls something, he obviously sees something is going to work. All we have to do is execute, and there shouldn't be any reason why we shouldn't run the ball."
Sophomore Rajion Neal was reaching a comfort level at receiver when the former tailback went up for a pass in the end zone and had his knee twist after landing on a pylon. The injury took him out of action for more than two weeks, but Neal returned to a full practice for the first time Tuesday.
"I was really frustrated because that's nothing that a player wants, but you can't question what God has planned for you," Neal said. "I'm out here trying to work and compete so I can be ready to play on Saturday with my team. I won't say the injury's set me back too far."
Neal was in and out of the backup tailback spot last season, but the emergence of freshman Marlin Lane and Neal's own speed and abilities forced the move to receiver. If or how much the Vols will use Neal on Saturday is uncertain.
"We'll try to figure it out," Dooley said. "Rajion has missed a lot. We'll try to integrate him into the game, shape some plays for him a little bit and see how he goes."
Freshman Devrin Young, the Knoxville resident who suffered a broken collarbone just before the start of camp, practiced for the first time Tuesday in a red noncontact jersey. Young worked with the tailbacks, though the Vols hoped his initial impact would come in the punt-return game.
"It was good to see him catch punts," Dooley said. "Now, he's not going to be able to get hit for a while, so he's still got a couple of weeks before he can get hit. But at least what it allows us to do is go practice one of the things that we signed him for -- that's go back and catch some punts."
Odds and ends
Dooley said that he's seen some the Vols might be able to produce enough pressure with the defensive front four to limit how much they have to blitz. ... According to the Missoulian newspaper, UT is paying Montana $500,000 for Saturday's game. ... Receiver Matt Milton (concussion) and defensive tackle Greg Clark (undisclosed) were in noncontact jerseys Tuesday.