KNOXVILLE - There was a reason why Tennessee threw the football all over the place during its four-win November run to the Music City Bowl.
So it's not a surprise that fixing the inconsistent running game was important as the Volunteers began spring practice Tuesday.
"We need our runners to run better than they did last year," coach Derek Dooley said Monday. "More yards, break more tackles. I'm not being funny - it's the truth. Get 6 yards on that play instead of 3."
UT's numbers from a year ago look good: Tailback Tauren Poole surpassed 1,000 yards for the season and averaged 80 yards per game and 5 per carry. But the Vols were inconsistent running the ball, and most of the yards came on long runs Poole would break.
Dooley's challenge to Poole, Rajion Neal and Toney Williams may seem odd, given that UT started three freshmen on its offensive line almost all of last season, but it's something the coach strongly believes in.
"I've always felt like runners make an offensive line," Dooley said, "and maybe it's because I've coached running backs. That whole thing - 'Well, he doesn't have a very good line' - I've never seen a great back not make yards in all my history.
"Great backs make yards, and they make guys miss in space; they power through guys. To me, a great back makes an offensive line better. It energizes the O-line, not the other way around. That's what I want to see backs do: I want to see them create so we get energized."
Poole, who will be a senior, understands his coach's challenge.
"I think he's exactly right," Poole said. "It's not always going to be perfect. The guys are going to get outnumbered, and sometimes what a running back does is get himself out of a situation.
"A lot of times I caught myself in that last year, trying to get myself out of a bad situation. But I've definitely got to do more this year. That doesn't mean more than I'm asked for, just what I'm asked and do my best at it - stop being so hesitant and just trust the O-line.
"We were young last year and I kind of took that in and tried to do more than I was supposed to. I tried to do too much a lot of times. But sometimes, like Coach Dooley told me, you're going to get 2 yards, you're going to get 3 yards, you're not going to break a long run a lot of times. I've got to continue to be more patient and trust those guys in front of me."
Those guys in front of Poole will be a year older by the time August rolls around, but there's still plenty of development for a sophomore group of Ja'Wuan James, James Stone, Zach Fulton and JerQuari Schofield. Dooley said a primary goal for the Vols this spring is for those freshmen from last year to make a leap to becoming consistently dependable Southeastern Conference players.
"I don't think any of them are [close] right now," Dooley said. "None of them have done anything well consistently."
It's a big group if nothing else. James (330 pounds), Stone (307), Fulton (334), Schofield (345) and midterm enrollee Marcus Jackson (337) all are plenty heavy, though Dooley hopes they develop the necessary strength to go along with that size.
"Coach Dooley's always saying nobody on our team is too big enough," James said. "We mess around with each other like, 'You're big or you're the fat one,' but it's all love."
As much of a load to improving the running game as Poole will claim, the offensive linemen feel the pressure as well and know that more experience may be the biggest aid in their improvement.
"When we tried to run, we did well some runs, and then sometimes we weren't as consistent," James said. "[Offensive line] Coach [Harry] Hiestand always says that comes over time and with repetition. After workouts the O-line will get together, go outside and work on our drive blocks.
"Now I think that we have the repetition and the experience. I think it should go a lot smoother."