Tennessee Football: How Much Will the Vols Run Game Improve in 2012?

Stephen WilliamsContributor IIIAugust 2, 2012

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 29: Marlin Lane #4 of the Tennessee Volunteers catches a pass during the game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Neyland Stadium on October 29, 2011 in Knoxville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

One look at the Tennessee record books is all you need to see the tradition and history the Vols have at the running back position. Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, Charlie Garner, Arian Foster and James Stewart have all donned the orange and white in the last 20 years.

During Tennessee's recent down years, the running game has been at times non-existent. Five times in 2011, the Vols failed to rush for 100 yards as a team. It's no coincidence that they lost all five games.

Derek Dooley's first two seasons in Knoxville have been anything but pretty. There are a multitude of reasons for that, which have been well documented by people across the country. However, the lack of a consistent running game is usually near the top of the list.

When Derek Dooley arrived in Knoxville, he inherited an offensive line that had collectively started three games as collegiate athletes. Football, especially in the SEC, is a game that is often won and lost in the trenches. When you have practically zero experience on one side of that battle, you aren't going to be successful very often.

In 2011, the majority of the offensive line returned, but the improvement people expected to see and the improvement people actually saw were not the same. It was deemed by many as a disappointing year for the offensive line, and it was back to the drawing boards for Dooley and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.

As Dooley has pointed out on numerous occasions this offseason, the Vols are currently in the best state they have been in during Dooley's time. The opportunity is there for Tennessee to have a big bounce-back season.

However, in order for that to happen, the Vols need to find a consistent ground game. Will there be substantial improvement in 2012?

Tyler Bray will lead an offensive attack in 2012 that already has and will continue to receive notoriety for its passing game. Flying under the radar will be the rushing portion of that attack.

Marlin Lane, Raijon Neal and Devrin Young stand to be the three players receiving the bulk of the work in the Volunteers backfield. None of those names jump off the page like those mentioned off the top, but there is potential there for a sound running game.

Lane is the between-the-tackles runner that has a nose for the end zone. Neal is making the conversion back to running back, and is good off the edge. Young is the small back that's a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball.

While it's not likely that one of these running backs will carry the majority of the load in 2012, the ground game as a whole can be successful.

Bray and company will do their best to take pressure off the ground game by lighting up the scoreboard through the air. Also, the offensive line returns fully intact with 104 combined starts under its belt.

Combine experience around the running game with new running backs coach Jay Graham and new offensive line coach Sam Pittman, and it looks like the Vols should see a vast improvement rushing the football in 2012.

If the Vols do end up markedly better on the ground this fall, it will be a special offense to watch. A passing game like Tennessee is expected to have combined with a solid rushing attack creates endless possibilities for Chaney, and a lot of points on the board.

The only question fans will be asking then is if the Vols can stop anyone.