The running game allows a team's O-line to set the tone of a game by attacking the opponent as opposed to protecting the quarterback. To an offensive lineman, the pass block is more a passive act of hit and retreat while the run block is an all-out aggressive action of hit, drive and bury. Pass blocking by it's very nature puts the offensive lineman in harm's way, whereas, run blocking commands him to clear the way.
An offensive line is defined by how effective it opens holes for the backs to run through, and the results determine a football team's personality. It says we're a power team, or we're a finesse team. And while finesse teams can sell tickets, it's power teams that tend to win championships.
UT head coach Phillip Fulmer prefers the power mode, but he likes to combine it with a big-play vertical passing game which exacts a high toll for defenses that crowd the line of scrimmage. Fulmer's Phil-osophy is much like the original Oakland Raiders used to terrorize the AFL and win a Super Bowl under John Madden, who himself was a former offensive linemen.
Offensive linemen with a run-first mindset have enjoyed great success in football. It's certainly no coincidence the NFL championship trophy is named after Vince Lombardi. You might recall Lombardi was a member of Fordam's famed Seven Blocks of Granite, or that the Green Bay Packers power-running game paved the way to NFL domination and set the standard for football success.
By the way, Lombardi and Madden are also the top two head coaches in NFL history when figured by victory percentage. In ten years Lombardi built a record of 105-35-6 (.740) with a franchise that had hit rock bottom before his arrival. Madden was 112-39-7 (.731) and took the Raiders to two Super Bowls and four AFC title games. Interestingly enough, Madden and Lombardi both had 10-year head coaching careers in the NFL. Coach Fulmer has also been a head coach for 10 seasons in which he has compiled a 95-20 record for a winning percentage of .826. That's first among active college coaches with at least 10 years service.
Another graphic illustration of the importance of the running game can be clearly discerned from Tennessee's top individual single-game yardage performances in team history. In the top 20 individual rushing performances in a single game, the Vols are 20-0. In the top 20 individual passing performances in a single game, the Vols are 10-8-2. The best passing games ever, again figured by yardage, of such Big Orange luminaries as Jeff Francis, Heath Shuler, and Andy Kelly all occurred in defeats. Tony Robinson's top passing performance (387 yards vs. UCLA in 1985) was only good for a tie. The top two games for pass completions in school history were by Peyton Manning and A.J. Suggs with 37 apiece, and both efforts took place in defeats to Florida and LSU respectively.
Additionally, the Vols are 23-3 in games in which one player has at least 30 rushing attempts. However Tennessee is just 8-10-1 in games in which a quarterback has at least 40 passing attempts, including a dismal 0-4-1 in the top five games for pass attempts.
These statistics show that the surest path to victory is on the ground. That doesn't mean that passing the ball leads to certain defeat. However history does strongly suggest that you can't win consistently without the presence of a strong running game.
Last season the Vols went 11-2 and came within a game of playing for the national title with a rushing attack that finished fifth in the SEC. True, Travis Stephens led the conference in rushing, but no other Tennessee back contributed more than 106 yards on the ground.
This season, Tennessee has at least six quality backs who will be vying for a share of the running load. Included in that group are Jabari Davis, Cedric Houston, Derrick Tinsley, Keldrick Williams, Troy Fleming and Gerald Riggs. That's a lot of talent and diversity in the stable. Davis (6-0, 232) is a big, powerful, punishing back with breakaway speed and ample athletic ability to go over the top. That's a combination that should make him particularly potent in short yardage and goal-line situations.
Houston (6-0, 215) is a cruiser with the size and strength to pick up the tough yards inside and the speed to slash against the grain for big gains. Tinsley is the most elusive Vol back and perhaps the most dangerous. He's definitely too good to stand and watch, so, expect him to pull significant PT playing the slot and wing where he can turn short passes into long plays.
Riggs combines a all the aforementioned attributes and may just be the Vols best pure running back. Don't be fooled by his outing in the Tennessee-Kentucky High School All-Star Game, Riggs will be ready for prime time in short order. Williams is a very capable back and led all rushers in the UT spring game, but he's probably fourth on the tailback chart going into fall just ahead of Riggs. Need we say more.
Fleming is versatile enough to play either I-back position and he's a solid receiver coming out of the backfield. The red-shirt junior is also UT's most experienced running back which increases his value immensely.
If there's a hole in Tennessee's running game from a standpoint of running backs, it is the glaring lack of experience. Sure Davis, Houston, Tinsley and Riggs were among the nation's top six running backs coming out of high school, but the first three of this all-star quartet weren't deemed game-ready until late last season. Any of the four will have a major adjustment to make when asked to carry the load at the major college level. That's another reason we could see quite a bit of Fleming in one-back sets. Tinsley could also be effective in this role especially in obvious passing situations.
Despite the experience problems, Tennessee has outstanding depth and ability at running back and should prove an improvement over Stevens' one-man show. Specifically, as the season grinds into November, the depth at running back will make a big difference.
UT''s delivery system is an offensive line that also appears improved in terms of size, depth and talent level. There are the makings of a superb eight- or nine-player rotation beginning with a trio of towering tackles. Included in this group are 6-foot-6 Michael Munoz, 6-foot-7 Sean Young and 6-foot-8 Will Ofenheusle. All three have been starters during their careers.
There is also a three-guard rotation of Jason Respert, Chavis Smith and Anthony Herrera that is replete with starting experience. Ditto for center Scott Wells who has anchored the starting line for two seasons.
To these seven with starting experience, Tennessee adds a crop of fresh talent that includes: Parade All-Americans Rob Smith, Brandon Jefferies and Heath Benedict as well as highly touted Texas tackle Cody Douglas. Smith and Jefferies will probably contend for playing time at guard and or center this fall. Carson Newman transfer Chuck Prugh, 6-3, 300, is also a contender for reserve duty at center, while Rich Gandy, Victor McClure and Douglas will attempt to crack the rotation at tackle. Benedict probably needs a year in the program to be battle ready, but he's a big-time prospect with unlimited potential.
Apparently Tennessee's scale stops at 305 because no current Vol offensive lineman is listed as weighing more than that figure. Will Ofenheusle is listed at 305, but if Ofenheusle is 305 then Mike Tyson is a card carrying member of MENSA and Anna Kornakova is camera shy. Every other UT starter is listed at 300 as is Herrera, Young and McClure. Gandy checks in at 295. Rob Smith reports that he is 305 so he should fit in with the crowd. Tennessee's starting line averages 6-5, 301, while the second five averages 6-41/2, 299. A projected third five, featuring 320-pound Cody Douglas, is actually the biggest of all.
Suffice it to say: Tennessee is deep, wide, big and high across the offensive front. That type of quality depth should make the competition for playing time most intense. The same applies in game competition where taking a play off could result in the rest of the day off.
Another thing that I like about this group, and it may be the thing that becomes most distinguishing as the year wears on, is that everyone seems to have a nasty disposition. That's not to say they're dirty or rules violators, but as a group they appear to have a burning desire to put away the man across the line of scrimmage. Even a young man as polite and well-spoken as Munoz has something of a mean streak when it comes to battling defensive linemen.
Jimmy Ray Stevens, who was Florida's offensive line coach under Steve Spurrier before coming to UT to coach tackles and tight ends last winter, noted that quality in Munoz during an interview this spring when he said: "...probably when it comes to offensive line play more than anything it's a mentality. It's an attitude, a little nastiness of really finishing every job, not just coming off hitting a great lick and moving your feet. It's finishing, taking a guy 10 yards down field instead of two or three. That's one thing I've seen in him (Munoz) that I really like, his attitude about finishing."
When it comes to playing winning football, there's nothing more vital than a big, strong, offensive line with a nasty disposition, opening holes for a spectacular stable of runners and being pushed by a second five that is just as big and strong and, perhaps, more hungry for playing time.
Writer's Note: Due to the length of this piece a fourth installment will be added that discusses Tennessee's tight ends and fullbacks along with a breakdown of some of the coordination needed to make the most simple of running plays successful.