A veteran offensive line that proudly returned all of its starters and a stable of talented tailbacks were supposed to be the crutches of Tennessee's offense this season as it broke in a new quarterback and new offensive coordinator.
But a limp has given way to near paralysis in the Vols' rushing offense. The quarterback, Jonathan Crompton,was benched for his ineffective play; the coordinator, Dave Clawson, hasn't yet found a way to make all Tennessee's offensive parts work in concert.
And the result? Tennessee is six games into a nightmare start that features four losses and mounting offensive questions. Saturday's foe, Mississippi State, visits Neyland Stadium (7 p.m., PPV) on the heels of a suffocating defensive performance in which Vanderbilt mustered just 107 yards of total offense in the Bulldogs' 17-14 upset win.
"Part of our charge and what we wanted to do was develop more of a physical mentality and knock people off the ball," said Clawson, who praised last year's offense for its ability to pass protect but indicated he didn't see consistent push in run-blocking. "You have the (starting) offensive line returning, you have an all-conference SEC tailback returning (Arian Foster), you have Montario Hardesty healthy, you have Lennon Creer, you have a young quarterback. The plan was this year, almost take the opposite philosophy and because being new at quarterback of let the run set up the pass.
"For the first three or four games I think our run totals were far ahead of where they were a year ago. And the last two games, we have not run the football well at all. That's very disappointing."
Indeed, Tennessee had 341 rushing yards through its first three games a year ago -- including a pair of losses -- and improved that figure to 539 through as many games this season.
But the Vols' ground attack began to falter this season against Florida, when it mustered only 96 yards on 31 tries as UT quickly dug a 20-0 hole. Since then, the numbers Tennessee has generated on the ground could yield conspiracy theories about quicksand and lead cleats. In its last four games, the Vols' offense has rushed for just 290 yards on 111 carries -- an average of 2.61 yards per carry. The morose figures, however, don't end there. Over that same span, UT tailbacks have carried 79 times and 37 have been for 2 yards or less, including 28 of 53 runs against SEC foes.
That's not helping the Tennessee offense position itself in "manageable" down and distances, a factor contributing heavily in an offense that lurks near the bottom of the league and the Football Bowls Subdivision in both scoring (17.3 ppg, 11th SEC, 108th) and third-down conversions (32.9%, 10th SEC, 98th).
"The way we do it, we want to stay on schedule," first-year tailbacks coach Stan Drayton said. "For us to stay on schedule we want to be at least 4 or 5 yards on first down. We have to get at least half of whatever the down and distance is on second down and then on third down we want to convert them all. To give you a number it has to be within the schedule of what we want to do offensively. Obviously at the end of the year, I would love to have individuals over 6 yards a carry. That is a goal we will set individually, but again, if we are winning games and staying on schedule, regardless of what that yards per carry average is, we are in good shape."
Players and coaches alike have pointed to execution as the driving force in the Vols' parked offense. They say good plays are being called but various breakdowns on all levels yield damaging results.
"Georgia did a great job of stopping our run, but it was basically just us not executing. That was the main thing, we didn't execute well," senior wideout Josh Briscoe said. "Georgia has a great defense, but if we would have hit our assignments and made the blocks we were supposed to make, there's no reason why we shouldn't have ran for 100 yards."
Added head coach Phillip Fulmer, "Our plans, we feel like, have been good, but our execution has not been there."
Statistics reflect a Tennessee offense closer to an execution than to breaking out. Even Clawson could acknowledge after last week's loss at Georgia that by the numbers the offense is regressing. In narrowly defeating Northern Illinois earlier this month and in last week's loss to the Bulldogs, the Vols rushed a combined 47 times for just 70 yards.
That's in stark contrast to what this same group of offensive linemen and running backs could generate last year at Mississippi State, when Tennessee rushed for 217 yards. Combined Vols tailbacks have 180 yards through three SEC games.
"We're all in this together. There's a lot of places that we're underachieving," Clawson said. "That's master of the obvious there, huh? Certainly that's a collective responsibility. If we were throwing the ball better we'd probably have better looks to run it. I really thought after the first couple games that we started to establish the identity of a team that can run the football. And our most productive passes the last 2 weeks have been off of play-action.
"People are loading the box and we are getting behind people the last 2 weeks but that's really been our whole offense. If you take away the long throw to Denarius (Moore) and the two throws to Gerald (Jones), both off of play-action, it's even a worse day offensively."
Perhaps the most glaring difference in the offensive line this season in comparison to last is Clawson's decision to move around linemen to quick and strong sides based on the plays, players' strengths and attempting to utilize a variety of factors to the offense's advantage. It's a move that certainly has come under increased scrutiny given the Vols' struggles, and Fulmer allowed that it was a factor that likely stunted the offensive progression in spring and summer.
But midway through this season, neither Fulmer nor Clawson believes it's at the root of the Vols' stuck-in-the-mud attack.
"If guys were busting assignments on the right side and not the left, I would say the flipping's confusing them. We're not busting assignments, We're not turning guys loose because the right tackle accidentally stepped to the left," Clawson said. "Those are things that I look at. And I've asked our players and I think there's a comfort with it now they probably didn't have 5 or 6 weeks ago. Maybe that's part of it but I'm not seeing breakdowns on the right side that I'm not seeing on the left side. If anything, it keeps the assignments simpler for them.
"We're not having a lot of assignment busts. I think that's where you say, 'OK, there's still confusion.' We're stepping the right way and to the right people and blocking the right guys. We're not doing that as well as we need to or would like to. That's what we'll work to get better at."
Right now, working to get better is the only crutch available to Tennessee's ground game.
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