KNOXVILLE -- "Abysmal."
That is the word Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley thinks is the best description for the Volunteers' rushing attack, which ranks last in the Southeastern Conference and 114th in the NCAA bowl subdivision.
"That bothers me because I feel like we shouldn't be [that bad]," center James Stone said. "We've got great backs, and it's just something that we've got to continue to improve on. It's more motivating than frustrating. We're all trying to find solutions and get down and get this line to where it needs to be."
In their two league games against Florida and Georgia, the Vols have run for minus-29 yards. Sacks, bad snaps and intentional-grounding penalties have figured into that negative number, but the problem still is obvious. Of the Vols' 34 handoffs in those two games, 15 have gone for either negative yards or no yards.
"That's over 40 percent we're not even getting it to the line of scrimmage," Dooley said. "It's not one thing. When something is that bad, it's not one thing. It probably breaks your spirit as a play-caller. It's hard to stay patient when you're going backwards."
Tailbacks Tauren Poole and Marlin Lane combined for 42 yards on 28 carries in the two SEC losses. Senioir Poole, who hurt his back on his first carry against Florida, is day-to-day with a hamstring strain that knocked him out of the Georgia game in the first half. Lane had 84 yards on six receptions against the Bulldogs, but the highly touted freshman is still adapting to college football.
"He's got to learn to run with a little more power," Dooley said. "That's what he doesn't have right now. It's a confidence thing. The good runners I've ever been around, they run and when a guy comes to hit them, they're delivering the blow. It's a mindset; it's a physical presence. He'll get there."
Lane's or Poole's running style won't matter if there's no open holes. UT's offensive line was a source of optimism entering the season, but the unit has struggled. Some linemen have noted communication issues as the problem, but Dooley had a different take.
"It's knock-somebody's-you-know-what-backwards issue," he said. "I think [the communication explanation is] mouse manure. We're over here worrying about mouse manure when we're up to our ears in elephant you-know-what."
Said left guard Alex Bullard: "Every time we get a chance to improve it, we need to improve. I don't think it's anything for us to be down and depressed about, because that's not going to help, either. Just coming to work every day and continuing to improve it is something that we can do, and that's something that we will do."
True freshman Justin Worley had it made as the Vols' third-string quarterback.
"You cruise when you're a three," Dooley said. "The favorite guy on every team is the third quarterback: puts the hat on; he's got the clipboard; he knows he's not going in."
With starter Tyler Bray out for five to six weeks with a broken thumb, Worley goes from a redshirt to Matt Simms' backup. Calhoun's Nash Nance is the only other scholarship quarterback.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Worley was South Carolina's Gatorade Player of the Year after throwing for 5,315 yards and a state-record 64 touchdowns in Rock Hill Northwestern High School's pass-heavy offense. He enrolled at UT in January and went through spring practice.
"He's smart; he's got good stature," Dooley said. "[It's] probably a bigger transition than Tyler just because of the offense he was in. He was a [shotgun] guy -- catch it and flip it around the park.
"I look back at Tyler's development. ... We had our foot up him from day one because when you're the [backup], you know as a coach it's one snap and he's in. There's that panic of getting him ready. When you're the three, you're just in that comfort zone. We've got to coach him a little bit."
Bray's injury certainly affects the rest of the Vols' 2011 season, but the sophomore must make sure he limits any long-term effects, Dooley said.
"This is an important time for Tyler," Dooley said. "It's important because he can still improve in a lot of areas that he's not mastered mentally. It's an important time for him to show some leadership to the other guys and keep their spirits up and help demand that they perform the way they need to perform. It's an important time that he shows support for Matt, and he will."
Dooley said the Vols are "trying everything" to correct Stone's errant shotgun snaps, which have victimized UT in two games this year. The sophomore's good-snap rate is at 90 percent, but the Vols must eliminate the 10 percent. It's not been a problem in practice, but the quality defensive lines and pressure of the game situations have factored into the poor snaps.
Stone, who's naturally left-handed, has been snapping everything right-handed, but he may go back to his left hand when the Vols are in the shotgun.
"Any way he wants to shoot it back there, he can," Dooley said. "At the end of the day we've got to go from point A to point B, and it ain't that hard."
UT's game against Alabama on Oct. 22 will kick off at 7:15 p.m. and be televised on ESPN or ESPN2.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.