No excuses

With three freshmen and a sophomore starting in Tennessee's 2010 offensive line, fans were satisfied that the Vols averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and 109.2 rushing yards per game last fall.

Head coach Derek Dooley was not. Even with a painfully young and inexperienced blocking front, he expected the Big Orange to be much more productive on the ground last fall.

"That whole thing ‘He doesn't have a great line' ... I've never seen a great back not make yards in all my history," he said this week. "Great backs make yards. They make guys miss in space and they power through guys.

"To me, a great back makes an offensive line better. He energizes the O-line, not the other way around. That's what I want to see the backs do. I want to see them create so that we get energized."

This approach obviously takes a lot of pressure off of the blocking front and puts it squarely on the shoulders of rising senior tailback Tauren Poole, but that's OK. He happens to agree with his head man's assessment.

"I think he's exactly right," Poole said. "It (blocking) is not always going to be perfect. The guys are going to get outnumbered (by the opposing front seven)."

Even when the blocking breaks down, Poole says a talented tailback occasionally should be able to salvage a play.

"Sometimes a good running back can get himself out of a situation," he said. "I caught myself in a lot of that last year - trying to get myself out of bad situations - but I've definitely got to do more this year.

"I don't need to do more than I'm asked. I just need to do what I'm asked and try to do my best at it."

The fact he'll be running behind sophomores with one year's experience this fall, as opposed to running behind freshmen with zero experience last fall, is encouraging to Poole.

"Oh, yeah. It's going to be great," he said. "I've been watching those guys work, and they have a great attitude. They've gotten stronger, and I've definitely gotten close to every last one of them. It's going to be something, and I'm excited just to get to work with them."

Poole had a good 2010 season in his first year as the starting tailback, averaging 5.1 yards per carry en route to 1,034 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. Still, he was tentative at times, unsure if his speed and power could get him through an opening.

Clearly, he realizes as much. Asked what he can do to be more productive in 2011, Poole replied: "Stop being so hesitant and just trust the O-line. We were young last year, and I took that (as a reason) to try to do more than I was supposed to. I tried to do too much a lot of times. Coach Dooley always tells me, 'You're going to get two yards or three yards; you're not going to break the long run every time,' so I've got to be more patient and trust those guys in front of me."

Rajion Neal, Poole's chief backup last fall, averaged 4.3 yards per carry en route to 197 yards. When asked what he wants from Poole and Neal this year, Dooley answered quickly and decisively.

"More yards. Break more tackles," he said. "I'm not being funny; it's the truth. Get six yards on that play instead of three."

Poole and Neal should benefit considerably from the fact Tennessee's young linemen have had a full year of college-level weight training. Most lacked the bulk and strength to be adequate drive blockers in the run game last fall. Tennessee addressed these deficiencies by putting them through a rigorous offseason program.

"The size is good; the strength levels are not," Dooley said. "And you can see them when we watch cut-ups (film clips). Our lower-body power, upper-body strength ... we're not pushing anybody around. Our strength levels have to come up to match our bulk and size.

"When you get that, now you can start doing something up front."

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