Pittman's crew

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Sam Pittman's vision is in the 20/20 range but Tennessee's offensive line coach sees something some fans apparently don't: Encouraging signs along the Vols' blocking front.

Those signs were especially evident in the first half of last Saturday's game with Florida, when No. 1 tailback Rajion Neal ripped off a 20-yard gain on the Vols' opening snap and went to the break with 14 carries for 66 yards.

Given that Florida has one of the most talented defenses in college football, Pittman was understandably pleased with Tennessee's first-half rushing success.

"I think our pullers (guards) did such a nice job," he said. "Our double-teams were doing well but, man, our pullers were on point. Dallas (Thomas) and Zach (Fulton) are good players, so I was pleased with that."

Pittman convinced several of Tennessee's offensive linemen to lose weight during the offseason so they'd be quicker getting to "the next level" and blocking linebackers. They did a superior job of this in the first half against Florida.

"We got on their linebackers really well," Pittman said. "We ran the inside zone away from (defensive end) Sharrif (Floyd) and he made three plays on us. He's going to make plays on a bunch of people; he's a good player. Then we ran the gap schemes and had success."

Although the first-half run blocking against Florida was very good, the O-line suffered through a rocky second quarter with three false starts and an illegal-formation penalty. The obvious question: What happened?

"I don't know except that we obviously lost our focus," Pittman said. "I don't know why we lost our focus."

The fact 102,000-plus Vol fans were screaming at the top of their lungs might have contributed. The decibel level at Neyland Stadium probably hasn't been that deafening since the 2006 opener against Cal.

Pittman refuses to use the noise as an excuse, however.

"We could hear pretty well," he said. "Man, the crowd was awesome. You couldn't hardly hear to talk to our own players on the sidelines. It was so loud it was awesome. I haven't been around anything like that before. We just lost our focus I would have to say. We don't do that our here (practice field)."

Tennessee has some old dogs on its offensive line but three of the four second-quarter miscues were committed by young pups. Sophomore left tackle Antonio Richardson was flagged for one of the false starts and the illegal formation (he took his stance too far from the line of scrimmage). Another false start was committed by redshirt freshman Kyler Kerbyson, who was only in the game because Ja'Wuan James' helmet was dislodged on the previous play.

Still, Pittman refuses to make excuses.

"When Ja'Wuan's helmet came off and we (Kerbyson) went in there and jumped offsides, more than anything it's a momentum killer," Pittman said. "Then Tiny (Richardson) was set up in the backfield one time and we lost a first down. We ended up scoring anyway but that doesn't make any difference. We can't be doing those things.

"If we don't hurt ourselves we're a pretty good offensive line. When we hurt ourselves we're about average."

With a sellout crowd in the stands and ESPN's GameDay crew on hand, the Tennessee-Florida atmosphere was the most electric at Neyland Stadium in years. Most likely, the young O-linemen merely lost their poise.

"Probably some of that is big game (pressure) and all of that," Pittman conceded, "but big games are when your good players show up."

After winning the first half 14-10, Tennessee relied heavily on its passing attack in the second half and wound up losing 37-20. Some fans ripped the offensive line. Pittman did not.

"We've got a long way to go but we've guys that want to get better and will, too," he said. "As bad as it (Florida loss) hurt, there's a lot of encouraging things, too.

"We're not near where we need to be but we're getting better. You can see it, and I'm proud of our guys."

One common criticism of Tennessee's O-line is that it isn't physical enough or tough enough. Pittman begs to differ.

"We're a physical offensive line," he said. "I know in the past people say we haven't been but I think we're pretty physical. I think we played a physical (Florida) team the other night.

"We're only going to get better. It was a hard one to swallow but it's over now and we've got to go beat Akron."

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