Tennessee Vols have 'room for improvement' in run game

Tennessee Vols have 'room for improvement' in run game

September 3rd, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones on the sidelines during the Vols' season-opener football game against the Aggies on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Tennessee left tackle Jacob Gilliam (65)

Tennessee left tackle Jacob Gilliam (65)

KNOXVILLE - Butch Jones roamed around Haslam Field on Tuesday afternoon spewing the same statistic to anyone, regardless of who was willing to hear it.

Never mind that it was incorrect and embellished for effect.

Tennessee's second-year coach reminded his tailbacks and offensive linemen that the Volunteers' longest run in Sunday night's season opener against Utah State was 5 yards.

It actually was a 9-yard gain by Marlin Lane, but Jones's point remained: Tennessee needs to run the ball better after managing just 110 yards on 39 carries against a Mountain West Conference defense.

"We obviously have room for improvement," center Mack Crowder acknowledged after practice. "It's not where we want to be, but that's almost expected for the first game [and] all of us playing together for the first time. We went back to the film and saw a bunch of things that we're going to correct.

"Coming out this next game, we're definitely going to be focusing on those things that we saw."

In the season's second game this Saturday against Arkansas State, Tennessee's new-look offensive line will look even newer.

The Vols lost starting left tackle Jacob Gilliam, a fifth-year senior former walk-on awarded a scholarship in May, for the season to a torn ACL in the third quarter of the 38-7 opening win. Redshirt freshman Brett Kendrick, touted junior college transfer Dontavius Blair and freshman Coleman Thomas will vie to replace Gilliam in the starting lineup.

"They're in the O-line room with us every day, and I've seen them work every day," left guard Marcus Jackson said. "We've got to take tests, and they're smart guys. I know whoever goes in there is going to be fine.

"I don't think it's really a challenge," he added. "Everybody on this entire O-line -- first-, second- and even scout team -- they all know what they're doing and they've all been working hard. It's just next man up."

It's a brutal blow for Gilliam, a Knoxville native who put in four years and countless hours of grunt work as a walk-on lineman and finally got his opportunity.

"Nothing's changed besides the fact that he might not be playing," Crowder said. "He's still part of the team, he's still part of the offensive line and we're going to treat him the exact same. Even to that, he's still held to the same standard. He's going to be helping the guys out that's going to be taking his spot and helping them learn and critiquing them and stuff.

"He's still a part of the team, and we're going to treat him like that. It was definitely an unfortunate event, but nothing's really changed for him. He's still one of us."

Kendrick, a 6-foot-6, 316-pounder also from Knoxville, finished the game after Gilliam's injury, and he appears to be in line to slide into the starting unit, though Jones said the trio "will compete for it" this week in practice.

The Vols also will address the issues that plagued them against the Aggies. Even if you take out a 5-yard loss on a bad shotgun snap in garbage time, Tennessee averaged 3 yards per carry. Not all of the blame falls on offensive line coach Don Mahoney's unit, but that's usually where it starts.

Jones prefers to look at running efficiency rather than yards per carry, but the Vols were subpar any way he slices it.

"An efficient run is 4 yards or more, or if it's second-and-short, third-and-short you get the first down," he explained. "Your average rush, or yards per carry, can be misconstrued because you may have one 80-yard run and the rest you're below average, but when you look at the average, it looks good.

"I'm more interested in realistic statistics, and that's run efficiency. I didn't think we did a very good job there. We have to be able to run the ball a little bit more."

The struggles certainly are a concern with Oklahoma and the Southeastern Conference looming.

Crowder said most of the easy corrections were "little things technically," and Jones said there were a handful of "single breakdowns," from the offensive line and tight ends missing blocks to the tailbacks making incorrect reads or quarterback Justin Worley not keeping the ball when he should.

"So much of your run game is all 11 individuals working together as one," Jones said, "and there was an about eight instances where we ran the football and we were one block away.

"We're working to get that corrected."

That's necessary if Tennessee does not want to become a predictable, one-dimensional offense.

"We were a little disappointed in the numbers, but it's not that big of a deal," Jackson said. "We will get it fixed. Whatever the problems are, we'll go over with Coach [Mahoney] and we'll come out and prepare for the next game."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.