Vols Find Fuel After Running on Empty
By Matt Smith
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If Derek Dooley is to save his job in Knoxville, the Vols will need to run the ball more efficiently in 2012.
For a program that has produced such talented running backs as Reggie Cobb, Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry, Tennessee’s 116th-ranked running game last year was more than alarming. Even with a returning 1,000-yard rusher in Tauren Poole, the Vols could never establish a running game during their disappointing 5-7 campaign.
Poole finished with only 657 yards in 2011, but much of that was out of his control. A young offensive line failed to gel as expected, and injuries to starting quarterback Tyler Bray and star wide receiver Justin Hunter put the clamps on what could have been a prolific aerial attack. With all of those factors combining into one of the worst seasons in the storied history of Tennessee football, head coach Derek Dooley is still searching for answers.
“How we can get that kind of consistent, every day running game is yet to be determined”, said the third-year head coach during SEC Media Days on Thursday. “We still kind of have a committee. We have three guys that sort of emerged. All of them have different skill sets.”
When Dooley took over in 2010 after Lane Kiffin’s abrupt departure for USC, he inherited an offensive line with just three career starts as a unit. That number now stands at 106, as all five starters return along with the unit's top backup.
“I think our offensive line is in a really good place,” Dooley said. “We have a lot of experience. They’re eager to go out and prove they’re a lot better than what they advertised last year.”
One of those returning starters is right tackle Ja’Wuan James, who was named Thursday to the media All-SEC third team. James feels that with the help of new offensive line coach Sam Pittman, the unit will go from a weakness to a strength.
“I’ve seen us grow,” said James. “The guys fight for each other. I’ve seen a big improvement. “[Coach Pittman] has us going in the right direction and playing a lot faster.”
James also offered a brief assessment of the running back battle.
“We got a lot of competition,” James said. “Raijon Neal asked to be moved to work with [left guard] Dallas Thomas and [left tackle] Tiny Richardson in the weight room. He’s one of the strongest on the team. Marlin Lane and Devrin Young are working hard too.”
The running back position experienced a coaching change, as did every position at Tennessee this offseason. Only offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and quarterbacks-turned-wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw remain from the 2011 team. Dooley was able to lure Tennessee alumnus Jay Graham back to Knoxville from South Carolina to coach the running backs. He expects only minor bumps in the road due to the coaching transition.
“There will be a few things where we show some growing pains. What’s made it seamless is guys who believe in what I believe.”
With the lack of consistency in the coaching staff, the team’s veteran players have taken on an increased leadership role. One of those is senior linebacker Herman Lathers, who missed the 2011 season with a broken ankle. James cites Lathers as the most vocal player in the locker room.
“He’s been through a lot with these injuries, but not once has Herman talked down to anyone. Not once has Herman complained. A lot of guys look up to him.”
James added that Lathers overcoming the broken ankle, a previous shoulder injury and bone cancer as a child serves as fuel to the rest of the team to right through the aches and pains that pop up throughout the football season.
“If you got a little bruise or something and you’re complaining, you look at Herman, and he’s gone through broken ankles and all other types of stuff and he’s still out here working.”
Bray also cited Lathers as an inspiration for the Vols.
“Herman’s our true leader. He keeps the team together.”
While Lathers may help inspire the offensive players, he won’t help the running game on the field. That’s in the hands of James, the rest of the offensive line, and the stable of running backs. It was the focal point in the spring, and the progress was enough to give the head coach a confidence boost.
“I feel better today than at any point since I’ve been in Knoxville,” Dooley said. “We have no chance to compete for an SEC title if we run it the way we ran it last year.”
Dooley also likely has little chance of still being the head coach in 2013 if the Vols run it the way they did last year. However, Bray said the pressure isn’t on the coach.
“He’s not on the hot seat,” Bray declared. “The team is on the hot seat.”