Published November 3, 2011 - 1:17pm
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Much was made of Tennessee’s inability to effectively run the ball in Derek Dooley’s first season as head coach of the Volunteers. The Vols were young on the offensive line, had little to no depth and Tauren Poole was a talented but unproven running back at the collegiate level. Poole put together a solid season, rushing for over 1000 yards, but the Vols still finished dead last in the SEC in net rushing, averaging just 109 yards per game. So with basically the same offensive line, a recruiting class that added depth and Poole back for his senior season, all things pointed to an improved running attack for the 2011 campaign. Eight games into the season Tennessee’s ground game has not improved, in fact, they have gotten worse and currently dwell in the SEC cellar with a net rushing average of just 82.6 yards-per-game. To put it all in perspective, Tennessee’s longest run from scrimmage for the year was a 30-yard scamper by punter Matt Darr on a fake punt.
So just what has happened to a unit that was supposed to be vastly improved? Let’s take a look at the key components that make up the Tennessee running game.
The group returned with experienced gained in 2010 with junior tackle Dallas Thomas and four sophomores that included center James Stone, tackle Ja’Wuan James, guards Zach Fulton and Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard. While still a very young offensive line, the unit had high hopes with the additional depth added with four-star in-coming recruits Antonio Richardson and Marcus Jackson. Stone, who converted from snapping left-handed to a more conventional right-handed approach, struggled with shotgun snaps and has since lost his job at center to Bullard. More shuffling has occurred recently with Jackson earning a starting roll at guard and Stone out of the starting rotation. The unit has taken most of the blame from everything from being too soft to communication breakdowns, presumably on who to block. Dooley has tried various combinations on the line but the rushing results have yet to make the necessary gains.
Tauren Poole – SR- Poole ran for 1,034 yards last season, averaging 5.1 yard-per-carry and put together six 100-yard rushing performances. This year has been a struggle for the Toccoa, GA native, who has gained an even 500 yards on 134 carries for an average of 3.7. Poole has rushed for just two touchdowns and his long run for the year is 28 yards.
Marlin Lane – FR – Lane has shown flashes, at times providing a spark, but has just 160 yards on 50 attempts for a 3.2 yard-per-carry average. The freshman was banged up last week and did not play against South Carolina.
Rajion Neal – SO – Neal backed up Poole last season and pushed the senior in spring practice. The sophomore has had tough times holding on to the ball which has allowed Lane to surpass him as Poole’s primary backup. Dooley has experimented with Neal in the slot receiver position, relegating the speedy back to just 12 carries for 55 yards.
Quarterbacks & Receivers
Tyler Bray – SO – Who needed a running game when Bray was shattering the record books early in the year, right? Well, the answer showed up in the Georgia game as the Vols reached a season low minus-21 rushing yards on 23 carries. Bray also had an off night before injuring his right thumb late in the fourth quarter. With a healthy Bray, the offense was obviously a pass-first oriented offense. After Bray went down, the struggling rushing attack was thrust more into the spotlight.
Matt Simms – SR – Say what you will about the beleaguered senior quarterback, but it is a fact that the Vols ran the ball much better with Simms behind center. Against the nations best two teams, LSU and Alabama, the Vols ran well considering the dominant defenses they were up against. Simms received praise from Dooley for his ability to check off at the line into running plays that garnered 111 yards against LSU and 92 against the Crimson Tide. In both games, the Vols exceeded their per-game average of 82.6 yards. Despite the running succcess against number one and two, the Vols lost both games by a combined score of 75-13.
Justin Worley – FR – The true-freshman quarterback is fresh off his first career start last Saturday night against South Carolina. Worley had a rough night and the Gamecocks defense shut down the Vols rushing attack, allowing just 35 yards on 21 carries. Worley has a bright future, but his lack of game experience and sizing up SEC defenses clearly gave South Carolina an advantage in grounding Tauren Poole and the running game. Dooley will stick with Worley as long as he can as he waits for his star, Bray, to return.
Justin Hunter – SO – So what’s Hunter got to do with the running game? Before the freak receiver went down with a season-ending torn ACL, the Vols were averaging 127 rushing yards per game, not great but light years ahead of where they are now. Bray and Hunter were able to help Tennessee set up the running game with the duo’s propensity to hit the home-run. After the Vols lost their deep threat and Bray’s number one go to receiver, the defenses were allowed to pack it in. Without Hunter, the Vols weren’t gonna beat you deep.
Last in the SEC
The Vols rank dead last in the SEC in rushing, averaging just 82.6 yard-per-game. Ole Miss is 11th in the conference, one notch above Tennessee, but the Rebels average over 40 yards per game more than the Vols, rushing for 122.8 yards per contest.
Tennessee’s 661 net rushing yards and 2.6 yards-per-carry average are also at the bottom of the conference. On the season, the Big Orange has been out-rushed by their opponents at nearly a 2-1 staggering margin of 1,309 to 661. Additionally, the Vols have rushed for an SEC-low 46 first downs.
In five SEC games, the Vols are averaging 41.6 yard-per-game and just 1.7 yards-per-carry. In three of those five SEC games, against Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, Tennessee had a combined 65 rushing attempts for a total net-rushing gain of five yards. Keep in mind that net-rushing factors in losses from quarterback sacks, but let that number sink in, 65 carries for 5 yards.
Tennessee ranks at the bottom of the conference in time of possession in SEC games, controlling the clock for just 25:43 per game. The lack of a productive running attack is a heavy contributor to this key statistic, that wears down the defense by keeping them on the field far too long.
NCAA Rushing Stats
Out of 120 FBS programs, the Vols’ 82.6 net rushing yards-per-game checks in at number 119. Only Miami (OH) is worse.
Tennessee’s 2.6 yard-per-carry average ranks number 117 nationally. Leaving just Memphis (2.5), Kent State (2.4) and Miami (OH) (2.2) looking up at the Vols.
In eight games the Vols have rushed for just 661 net rushing yards. Only Florida Atlantic with 600 yards in seven games and Miami (OH) with 540 have less than Tennessee.
With some of the nation’s top defenses in the Vol’s rear-view mirror, the running game has some hope of getting back on track. The next four opponents; MTSU, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky allow a combined average of 182 rushing yards-per-game, compared to the 85 yards allowed by the last four; Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina . That being said, Tennessee still has their own in-house issues to overcome in order to produce an effective running game, an effective running game that is going to be necessary if the Vols have any hopes of winning at least three of their last four games to gain bowl eligibility.