KNOXVILLE - Robert Gillespie is happy with one phase of his tailbacks' recent play.
It's another area where Tennessee's running backs coach acknowledges improvement needs to be made.
The Volunteers' ground game has been inconsistent the past two games against Oregon and Florida, and though the struggles are due to a variety of factors -- the opposing defensive fronts, the offensive line having trouble opening consistent lanes and Tennessee's wobbly passing game -- Gillespie believes backs Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane must build on some of the good things they've done.
"I always say there's room to get better. There is," Gillespie said following the Vols' Wednesday practice. "Obviously I think we're doing a good job of getting downhill, breaking tackles [and] making plays at times when nothing's there. I think that's the key part of what we have to do.
"We have to obviously take advantage when the creases are there, and we've got to do a better job of when there's nothing there, creating the extra yardage. Those are things we talk about every day. Hopefully we'll continue to get better. I think we've taken a lot of strides from game one to this last game, so hopefully we'll continue that this week."
Neal finished with 42 yards on 12 carries against the Gators, though he was charged with a 7-yard loss on Tennessee's opening-series fumble, on which the Vols' offense was doomed by miscommunication and a shift by Florida's defensive front. The bulk of the senior's yardage came on four runs, including 15- and 11-yard gains.
After having the edge in carries the previous two games, Lane ran just five times, and 11 of his 16 yards came on two consecutive third-quarter carries. The Vols followed those two plays with three incomplete passes and a punt.
The Vols had no lost-yardage plays against the Ducks, but Tennessee had eight running plays of two yards or less against Florida.
Gillespie did say, though, that his backs are "taking strides" in their pass protection.
"You put in the film on from Florida -- a very defense, their linebackers are big physical guys -- and I thought we did a really good job of sticking our nose in there and being physical," he said. "That's one thing I think that we're trying to change from some of the old tape that we had. Once you become a physical pass protector, I think everything starts to go downhill.
"I think the guys start to respect you, and they start to get confidence as a runner. I think we're getting better every week from a physical standpoint. Obviously we want bigger plays, we want bigger runs, but I think those will come with time."
Now what for Peterman?
Nathan Peterman was back on the practice field on Wednesday watching his fellow quarterbacks with his hand in a cast and his arm in a sling.
The biggest question is where is the redshirt freshman mentally after his first start ended disastrously.
Playing a short distance from his hometown, Peterman completed 4-of-11 passes for only five yards, threw two interceptions, fumbled once and orchestrated a first half where the Vols had more turnovers (four) than first downs (three), finished with only 31 yards and failed to capitalize on Florida's own offensive gaffes.
"He's disappointed and frustrated, and I think as a competitor that's natural," Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "He's given the opportunity and ending the way it did, and with the injury, anybody would like to be out there and practicing with the guys.
"He's worked so hard -- they all have worked so hard -- through the course of the offseason, through the course of the summer, through the course of training camp, and to be in his spot right now is a tough spot.
"Sure, he's disappointed, but again Nathan is a very positive guy, he's got a strong faith and he understands that there is some good in what happened, and it's just a matter of recognizing it and finding it."
A number of teammates said after the game and earlier this week they'd be there to pick Peterman up from what happened, and he had impressed the coaching staff with his work ethic -- head coach Butch Jones and others noted Peterman's early-morning arrivals to the complex -- since last month.
After Justin Worley was named the starter for Tennessee's season opener, Peterman met with the media and spoke openly about his disappointment in not winning the job.
Bajakian and Jones recruited Peterman heavily while at Cincinnati, so if any coach knows how to handle Peterman in such a rough situation, it's the two of them.
"That's part of being a coach," Bajakian said. "Whether they've had great success of whether they've struggled, you have to point out the good, allow them to develop confidence in what they did well and point out the bad so we can improve upon those things we did poorly. That was part of our process with Nathan."
Bouncing back for Peterman will be process, too, one through which he'll have to navigate.
Speed slowing Smith
Freshman receiver Josh Smith played well (three catches for 36 yards) against Western Kentucky, but the sure-handed Knoxville product has struggled with drops since, letting three passes against Oregon and Florida go through or bounce off his hands.
The Vols view dropped passes as turnovers, but receivers coach Zach Azzanni didn't seem to worried about the drops on Wednesday, noting how well Smith catches in practice.
"The game hasn't slowed down for him yet, so everything is still so fast to him," Azzanni said. "It feels like he's got to go make a play, and he's a little bit too wired up, and that's why he's dropping passes right now.
"I don't make a big deal about it. I mean, I do as far as, 'Drops are unacceptable,' but then I leave it alone and we come out here and keep working."
• Bajakian said freshman quarterbacks Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs are "on high alert" with the backup job up for grabs this week. "They all prepare," the coordinator said, "as if they're going to start, and at no point this season so far has any of them been off the shelf."
• The Vols must improve on early downs to avoid poor third-down situations after they were just 35 percent efficient on first down and 50 percent efficient on second down, according to Bajakian.
• Tennessee's two tackles, Ja'Wuan James and Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, both tweeted encouragement to Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley on their respective Twitter accounts on Wednesday. The Gators announced late Wednesday that Easley suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice on Tuesday. Easley was the No. 7 recruit in the country in the 2010 class, the same one that produced James, Zach Fulton and James Stone -- 60 percent of Tennessee's starting offensive line.