Smash-mouth returns

Tennessee is pounding the rock again and, not coincidentally, guard Rob Smith is smiling again.

The Vols spent the first five games of 2005 throwing and running from spread formations behind zone blocking schemes. Game 6 saw the Big Orange go back to basic power football, pounding the ball at Alabama out of the I-formation. That wasn't enough to keep Tennessee from suffering a 6-3 loss but it was enough to give Smith reason for optimism.

"Even though we lost, that's the most fun I've had all year, to be honest," he said. "For once, I felt like the game was on my offensive line's shoulders … felt like we had more of a key role in the game. When you feel more important, you take more ownership. It was a nice feeling."

Like most offensive linemen, Smith enjoys run blocking far more than pass protecting. He's glad the Vols ran the ball 35 times vs. Bama and passed it just 19 times.

"Pass blocking's a lot of other things," Smith said. "You can block great but the pass is a hair off or the receiver can drop it or he runs the wrong route. In run blocking, if you make the hole, the running back's going to get at least three or four yards even if the person's blind."

"You feel like the game is more on your shoulders than someone else's shoulders. Competing is what it's all about. You want to line up and say, ‘Let's see who's better between us two.'

Smith was almost as happy about the return to the I-formation as he was about the return to "pounding the rock." He loves the rock ‘em, sock ‘em style of play the I-formation facilitates.

"For sure," Smith said. "It makes it more physical. It's a mindset. You put your hand down, put your ears back and go."

Smith isn't the only Vol blocker excited by the return to smash-mouth football. The other linemen were just as pumped as he was by the chance to fire out and belt Alabama's defenders.

"Oh, yeah. No doubt," he said. "That's the most jacked up we've been all year. We were hitting ‘em square in the face, and it felt good. We opened up some holes, and that's what we like to do."

Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders concedes that UT got away from its power-football roots in Games 1 through 5 but says the Vols had little choice.

"There's no doubt we did a little bit," he said. "But a little bit of it's because we had to. We didn't have a center. We had so many injuries up front that we couldn't practice (being) physical. We couldn't just say, ‘We're going to turn it on Saturday, go out and get physical.' We finally started getting guys healthy and we were able to practice that way (physical) and pretty much made a commitment to doing it."

The Vols are sure to rely heavily on I-formation running this Saturday against South Carolina, given the success they enjoyed at Bama.

"I thought we ran the ball well," Sanders said. "I was pleased with what we did. But I also expect us to gain more than 109 yards this week if we run it 35 times."

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