Proving Ground: Improved offensive line leading Vols’ high-powered attack
By Grant Ramey | (email@example.com)
KNOXVILLE — Of all the criticisms that have came with Tennessee’s 3-3 start this season, the offensive line hasn’t been one of them. Tennessee’s front five, in fact, couldn’t be further away from the critics.
Tennessee’s average of just over 90 yards rushing per game last year is a distant memory this season.
The Vols ran for 1,081 yards and 11 touchdowns in 12 games last season. Through UT’s first six games this season, Tennessee has already matched that rushing touchdown mark with 11 and already topped last year’s team rushing total, running for an even 1,100 yards so far this season.
“This is a group that was totally maligned last year, saying they stink and we need to replace them,” head coach Derek Dooley said of his offensive line on Monday. “It just shows you the value of staying the course when you have the right kind of guys in place.
“We never really lost confidence in what their future held. We certainly were disappointed in how they were performing last year. They made an incredible commitment to stay the course and the results are showing.”
The results so far this season show Tennessee at seventh in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging just over 183 yards per game, a little more than double what the Vols averaged in 2011.
A steady dose of both the run and the pass has helped UT to an average of 38 points per game, good enough for fourth in the SEC.
And when the Vols pass, Tennessee is first in sacks allowed, giving up a league-low three through six games and is tied for third in the SEC in first downs, averaging just over 24 per contest.
“They play very consistently every game,” Dooley said. “I’ve said it before, you have four guys up there in their third or fourth year in the program. The one that isn’t is in his second year with some really special ability.”
Those third and fourth year guys include redshirt senior guard Dallas Thomas (31 career starts), junior tackle Ja’Wuan James (31 career starts), junior guard Zach Fulton (30 career starts) and junior center James Stone (21 career starts).
The least experienced of the bunch, sophomore Antonio ‘Tiny’ Richardson, who will start his seventh career game today against Alabama, stands 6-foot-6 and weighs in at a not-so-tiny 332 pounds and may prove to be the most talented among the future NFL starters.
“Nobody is making mental errors,” Richardson said this week. “We are getting five guys on a hat, that’s the difference. I feel like we’ve got the talent. This is my second year but before I got here, we had the same guys and same personnel. You know it’s been there.”
One member who wasn’t around for the “totally maligned” season last year was offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who was hired in January to replace former line coach Harry Hiestand.
“Sam’s been a good addition and I think he was a welcome change,” Dooley said. “It’s not that Harry didn’t do a good job. Harry is a great line coach. He’s showing that right now. Like I said in the offseason, we needed to kind of refresh everybody and get some new personality.”
James, one of the most veteran on an already veteran line, said Pittman has made all the difference.
“We felt like we knew we could we just needed to go out and prove to everybody that we could,” James said. “The difference is experience and Coach Pittman.
“(A coach) can make a lot of difference, it changes the whole room, it changes everything. It has helped and it’s seen on the field.”
The Vols starting proving that difference with 191 rush yards against North Carolina State to start the season. Tennessee ran for 213 yards against Mississippi State last week and 197 yards against Georgia three weeks ago. UT ran for a season-high 232 yards in a win against Akron.
Top-ranked Alabama will be a different breed of animal, though, when the Tide brings it’s 3-4 defense that’s first in the SEC in just about every defensive statistic, incuding rushing defense (giving up just 55.3 yards per game).
“We’ve seen the front they run; our defense runs it, so we see it every day,” Richardson said of the ’Bama 3-4. “You can’t sugarcoat it, they’re good.
“I just feel like we come in there and just do what we have to do, if we get our five on their five we’re going to be successful.”