KNOXVILLE - The embarrassment has become an emphasis.
Tennessee's problems running the football last fall have been a focal point through seven practices this spring, and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said after Wednesday's workout that the Volunteers' focus in improving that area has yielded some results.
"I think quite honestly, as a group, as an offense, we ran the ball so poorly last year, I think we're a tad bit embarrassed about what we got done," he said as UT's assistant coaches met with reporters for the first time this spring. "Everybody's got a pretty good workman's attitude right now.
"The line's doing better, the tight ends, the wide receivers. If you ask me, the wide receivers are noticeably blocking better, and they're trying to make an effort to do that. The running backs are obviously doing that, too."
The Vols were 116th nationally in rushing yards per game last season. Chaney knows what he has in his passing game with quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, so focusing heavily on his offense's other dimension makes sense. There's no schematic overhaul, just plenty of work on developing a tougher attitude.
"I think collectively we're trying to be a more physical football team," he said. "I'm pleased with that."
Hunter's health has been a positive for the Vols. The rising junior star continues to practice more than expected as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered last September. The 6-foot-4, 190-pounder has entered a different part of his rehabilitation process.
"We've pushed Justin, and Justin's really doing a good job," receivers coach Darin Hinshaw said. "The healing process is happened, now it's about strength levels with that knee and continuing to get it stronger. Both legs aren't the same, so he's getting used to that, he's really working through it, he's really working hard and he's working hard at rehab. It's hard because at rehab, they push him.
"He's going and playing like Justin Hunter knows how to play. He's doing a really good job. He's got to continue work at it and continue to get that strength level back up."
'Fun to coach'
Hinshaw is in his third year at UT, but it's his first season as the program's receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. The 39-year-old former Central Florida quarterback admitted he's having fun coaching a new position, especially one with two next-level talents in Rogers and Hunter. Though Rogers, the former Calhoun High School star, has been in and out of trouble this offseason, Hinshaw praised him on Wednesday.
"Da'Rick, again, is extremely smart," he said. "He's engaged in all the meetings. He works extremely hard on the practice field, he's a leader out there and he's doing a really good job. I'm extremely proud of Da'Rick. He's fun to coach.'
There is a quarterback competition of sorts at UT after all. The cerebral Justin Worley enters his second year with some season on him after being thrown in the fire last fall, and Nathan Peterman has created some buzz with his physical abilities since arriving on campus in January. The Vols' quarterback competition, however, is a one-man show starring Tyler Bray.
"Tyler is more confident and calm and acting a lot more mature," Chaney said. "I think Tyler, quite honestly, from a mature standpoint, is competing against himself more than anything else. He's trying to become a better football player, and I'm tickled to death.
"Tyler is consciously trying to become a more vocal leader. It's not natural for him to yell and scream. He'd rather just play football."
UT confirmed Wednesday that freshman inside linebacker Christian Harris suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during Monday's practice. No timetable for a return has been set for the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Woodstock, Ga., native, who was UT's first verbal commitment in the 2011 class. After redshirting last season, Harris was expected to push for playing time as a backup.