Tennessee Volunteers Football: 4 Ways to Fix the Running Game
The Tennessee Volunteers are ranked 118th out of the 120 college football teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in per game rushing.
It goes without saying that being among Kent State, Florida Atlantic and Miami of Ohio is utterly unacceptable for a Tennessee team that goes up against Alabama, Florida and Georgia every year, and it must change immediately if the Vols hope to go bowling. The running game has been nothing short of atrocious this year, and that's with a stellar passing game to distract opposing defenses at the start of the season.
Clearly, there are a number of problems that need to be fixed, and I've narrowed it down to four specific things the Vols can do to improve the rushing attack for the stretch run.
Undo Any and All Changes Made from 2010 to This Year
This sounds pretty basic, but it's the first and easiest thing the Tennessee Volunteers can do to find their running game's mojo again.
In 2010, the offensive line was manned by a sophomore left tackle and four freshmen at every other line position. They led the way to Tauren Poole's SEC-best six 100-yard rushing games, which helped him reach his only 1,000 yard rushing season in his career.
Many believed that returning the entire offensive line, bringing Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard and adding freshmen studs Antonio Richardson and Marcus Jackson would only help the 2011 offensive line improve. Apparently, they (and I) were wrong.
I'm not sure if the Vols have switched blocking schemes, practice routines or conditioning for their linemen, but the huge drop in their performance simply makes no sense.
If you can't block MTSU into oblivion at Tennessee, there's something wrong.
Put James Stone Back at Center
James Stone was a true freshman starter for nearly every game last year. He earned my trust when he explained that Tennessee wasn't on his list until Lane Kiffin was gone.
The coaching staff felt it necessary to alter this freshman All-American's snapping motion. The left-handed Stone now has been "taught" to snap it with right hand.
Can you imagine having to do something over and over perfectly with your weak hand? Can you imagine having to do this even though things worked out perfectly fine when you did it with your strong hand? Not me.
Stone held the nose of the ball rather than the laces. It was an awkward motion, to be sure, but it allowed him to focus on calling the line's blocks and preparing for his own. This year, there's no doubt that he had to put more focus on snapping the ball on the laces with his weak hand.
Now the Volunteers have had to put him on the bench and play freshman Marcus Jackson at guard with Alex Bullard moving over to center. All three are doing something that they aren't as well prepared for.
Is it just me, or does this seem ridiculous?
Recruit and Development a Stud Running Back
Easy, right? Just go out and recruit a top-five running back to play for the Tennessee Volunteers.
Obviously, it's terribly difficult, and considering when you omit Bryce Brown, the Vols haven't had recruited a Rivals 5 Star running back since 2002 in Gerald Riggs, Jr., it seems only that much harder.
Tauren Poole is giving it everything he has, but it's simply not enough for the SEC. Marlin Lane might be able to carry the load in the future, but it's very much a work in progress. Devrin Young is a specialist. Jaron Toney was unknown until he carried the ball 19 times against MTSU.
As much as I love Derek Dooley's recruiting, running back is among the top two weaknesses in his classes thus far. Next year, two more 3-Stars are in line to come in, and while the Vols are still hosting trips to top high school running backs, it seems like this is still a ways off.
It's a quick fix: Improve the running game by getting a better running back. It's very hard, though.
By the way, the last time Big Orange fans saw Riggs in December, he was running for 181 yards in the SEC Championship. There's nothing like an all-star running back.
Fire Offensive Line Coach Harry Hiestand
The last resort the Tennessee Volunteers need to take if the running game can't get back on track is make a coaching change. Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand worked wonders last year with a young, inexperienced line, but there is a disconnect this year.
I wouldn't advocate this move until the Vols have tried everything else, but it's on the table. The talent the line has is indisputable. We have all seen it. The experience comes with each passing game. Next year, the entire line will be made up of seniors and juniors, so the excuses will be out the window.
Hiestand has an impressive playing and coaching resume, but if the results aren't seen in Knoxville, it won't matter.