After watching the Vols rush for an SEC-worst 90.1 yards per game last fall, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney sees signs of significant progress under first-year running backs coach Jay Graham.
"The kids are really getting used to Jay," Chaney said following Wednesday's morning workout. "I think Jay's doing a wonderful job with the guys. They're competing with a real professional attitude. There's no giddiness. There was a silliness about our offense in the first two years here under Coach (Derek Dooley) but I feel like that's kind of disappeared a little bit. There's a more mature attitude on the field, and it really shows up there.
"It's fun to watch because we've been able to be physical running the ball, which is intriguing. That's been fun to do. And we have some vertical speed to be able to throw the ball."
That might be the understatement of the year. Tennessee has vertical speed few teams can match in Justin Hunter, Da' Rick Rogers and junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson. Rogers recorded 67 catches for 1,040 yards last fall. Hunter was on an even better pace before tearing an ACL in Game 3. He's now close to 100 percent.
|The Vols have plans to use Devrin Young in a variety of ways to get the most out of his explosive capability in space.|
Patterson, by all accounts, is just as physically gifted as Rogers and Hunter.
"Cordarrelle is that big, athletic, fast kid that we thought," Chaney said. "There's been nothing he's done to disappoint. He's about right where we thought he'd be — a big, fast kid who can make some plays."
One player who could be a key to Tennessee's offense this fall is junior tailback Rajion Neal. Blessed with a powerful 5-foot-11, 212-pound frame and blazing 4.36 speed, he could give the Vols a home run dimension at running back they've lacked in recent years.
"I think Rajion's coming out every day with a really workmanlike attitude, as is the whole group," Chaney said. "Rajion's really raising his game, and Devrin (Young) is making plays for us a lot. Marlin (Lane) is being a steady performer and doing a nice job on some third-down stuff. I'm pleased with where we're at. It's going to be fun to shape it as we go along, like a ball of clay."
SEC football is not for the meek, a fact Tennessee's staff is trying to convey during each practice. Chaney wants his runners to run more aggressively and his blockers to block more tenaciously.
"We've been pressing the physicality of our conference, and trying to become a better physical football team," the coordinator said. "I think they've bought into that. Today I wasn't super pleased about it but, for the most part, we're trying to hit people."
With everyone back from the 2011 starting offense except tailback Tauren Poole, experience should be a real plus in 2012. It may be an even bigger asset for the coaches than for the players.
"I find the advancement of our offense is coming more from understanding one another's personalities," Chaney said. "We know these kids better and they know us. They know it's not personal when we're getting in their hiney.... It's easier to coach guys you know."
For more from Chaney talking about his offense this week, click play on the video below:
Neal also talked on camera this week about the progress his side of the ball is making. Check out the footage from InsideTennessee: