Tennessee prefers the I-formation to launch its running game. Often I'm asked why if you only need a yard or less do you hand off to a tailback who is seven yards behind the line of scrimmage? That's a good question to which there is an even better answer. Handing the ball to a back lined up six to seven yards behind the line of scrimmage allows him to build some momentum before he makes contact. A back who takes a hand-off three yards behind the line is more concerned with ball security and is less able to read the blocks up front or to find the hole.
Often in short-yardage or goal-line situations, the defense likes to jump the gaps and there's not much an offensive linemen can do to prevent a D-linemen from going inside if that's what he wants to do. So instead, the O-lineman will take the defender that way and attempt to bury him as near the line as possible. In turn the tailback has time to see what is happening up front and can go over the top to pick up the yardage.
This same approach works well on first and second down when a defense might be more apt to use run blitzes into holes it knows the offense has tendencies to favor. The tailback has time to see the hole is closed and adjust to the hole that is created by the stunt. There's no way a defense can stunt to shut down one hole without opening another and the best way for a tailback to take advantage is by reading the blocks. Just as there's nothing more valuable to a good tailback than a stalwart offensive line, there is nothing as significant to an offensive line as a back with great vision. Because defenses chart tendencies so thoroughly many running plays never go through the hole they were originally intended.
Since the I-formation is a balanced set, it also forces the defense to become more balanced and, consequently, more predictable. That's one of the reasons the wishbone was such an effective running formation; it forced defenses to play assignment football and keeps it in more of a read-and-react mode than an attacking style of play.
Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer often refers to "pounding the rock" which is a metaphor for hammering the defense between the tackles until it starts to crumble and offers little resistance. It's a straightforward approach to taking the will away from the defense and taking over the game on the ground. Once you have established the inside run on offense, you can do just about whatever you want to with football.
If the offensive line is performing the work up front, the fullback becomes the sledgehammer it swings to pound the rock. Because the fullback is leading the tailback through a hole, he most often throws the block that springs the play for a big gain. Commonly, the fullback is taking on a linebacker who has followed the flow of the play to the hole. To be consistently successful in this role, the fullback has to have exceptional size, strength, quickness and toughness.
Tennessee has been fortunate to have had a series of outstanding fullbacks including Will Bartholomew who held down the starting job for the last two seasons, taking over the job from Phillip Crosby who took over for Shawn Bryson. Before that Chester Ford, Eric Lane and Mose Phillips took on the critical load of fullback for Fulmer coached teams.
This season Tennessee will have junior Troy Fleming, 6-2, 220, in the role. Fleming has gained plenty of playing time the last two seasons behind Bartholomew and is a better running and pass receiving threat. It remains to be seen how well he will flourish as an every-down blocking back. Fleming doesn't have the classic build of a blocking fullback and his 6-2 frame could present some problems in maintaining leverage, but he does have plenty of athletic ability.
Redshirt freshman Will Reville looked good in the spring game and at 6-0, 230, fits the role well. The Vols signed Reuben Mayes from Memphis this year and he figures to compete for playing time given the Vols shortage of experienced depth. Tennessee may even be tempted to move Jabari Davis to fullback on occasion, but it's unlikely that he would offer any long-term solution given his value as a runner.
Because Fleming will be counted on in some single-back sets and has value as a pass receiver out of the backfield, the lack of a proven backup is a real concern for the Vols. Injuries among the fullback corps could force the Vols to make some drastic adjustments, perhaps even using an offensive guard in that role.
The same concern exists at tight end where John Finlayson has graduated, Courtney Rogers transferred and Leon Pinky didn't qualify out of junior college. Of course Jason Witten gives Tennessee an outstanding tight end who is capable of producing big plays, but the down-to-down grind of blocking bigger players on the line of scrimmage isn't his strong suit. Witten is much more valuable as an H-back who can go in motion and lead a play or run a pass route. That means either incoming freshman Aaron Kirkland or converted offensive tackle Sudan Ellington will have to step up quickly. Kirkland was an outstanding blocker in high school, but wasn't accustomed to taking on 300-pound linemen as a rule. Ellington received praise for his play in the spring, but looks to be more of a stop-gap answer in light of the aforementioned attrition.
The tight end has to be, perhaps, the most versatile blocker in UT's offensive system. Sometimes he's trying to hook the defensive end. Other times he is asked to double team a defensive tackle or to take on a linebacker in open field.
Outside of Witten, there is a glaring lack of experience and depth at tight end. The same is true at fullback for the Vols. If you're looking for a weakness in UT's rushing attack these appear to be the most vulnerable points to consider. There is only one experienced player at each one of these key positions and both are too valuable as skilled contributors to be used primarily in a blue collar jobs.
If the Vols are successful in solving the problems at fullback and tight end, Tennessee's 2002 rushing attack just might become one for the ages.