Vols’ running game still a question mark
Posted: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 7:02 pm
By BETH RUCKER
AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley knows there’s no sugar-coating the Volunteers’ running game.
“At some point you just say we aren’t very good at running the ball,” Dooley said. “How many times can you get asked, ‘What’s wrong with the run game?’ We are not very good running the ball.”
It’s been a sore spot for the Vols (4-5, 0-5 Southeastern Conference) all season, but after nine games they still don’t have a clear answer of how to improve. Only two teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision average worse than Tennessee’s 86.8 yards rushing per game.
Dooley took advantage of a 24-0 homecoming mismatch against Middle Tennessee, which ranks among the bottom 20 teams in the nation in rushing defense, to test out a new tailback and a wildcat scheme. Though both brought a small spark to the offense, neither provided any definitive solutions for when the Vols travel to No. 8 Arkansas (8-1, 4-1) on Saturday.
Walk-on Jaron Toney became the sixth tailback to take the field this season for Tennessee, and the redshirt freshman picked up 52 yards on 19 runs in his first career game for an average 2.7 yards per carry.
Though Dooley liked most of what he saw from Toney, Tauren Poole, the lone senior starter on Tennessee’s offense, is still the Vols’ top back. Poole has four touchdowns this season and is averaging 3.5 yards per carry and 57 yards per game after amassing 1,034 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns last season. Freshman Marlin Lane has contributed an average 21.9 yards rushing per game and is also in the mix.
We’re going to keep working like heck to run the ball better, and if we’re going to beat Arkansas, we’re going to have to run it better,” Dooley said. “But we’ll keep playing those three backs, probably, and see who’s running the best.”
Part of running the ball better will come down to the offensive line improving its run blocking. The line has excelled at pass protection, and center Alex Bullard thinks it showed promise of improvement by opening up holes against LSU and Alabama, the two stingiest rushing defenses in the nation.
The Vols averaged 101.5 yards rushing in those two games.
“It’s more what we do with how we play rather than who we play,” said Bullard, who’s also spent time at guard this season. “If we take our right steps, hit our right targets and use our technique, it really doesn’t matter who’s in front of us. I think that shows in the last few games that we’ve played, that we were able to run the ball better against better opponents just because we played better in those games.”
Dooley hopes some more practice time with Lane in the wildcat formation might add up to some extra yards on the playing field. The coach has been a fan of the direct-snap formation for a while but didn’t feel he had the right personnel to run it at Tennessee until Lane settled into his running back role.
The 6-foot, 205-pound Lane can throw the ball because of his experience playing quarterback as a high school freshman and ran the wildcat as a junior and senior at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Fla., but said there are no plans at the moment for him to do so from behind center.
“We’re just taking it day by day and working on it to see how it develops,” Lane said.
With an inconsistent passing game, the Vols will need every yard rushing they can get to keep up with the Razorbacks.
Published in The Messenger 11.8.11