Vols will run the ball better

Which is the biggest problem: Tennessee's run blocking or Tennessee's running backs? That's the question that has been asked for the past few years. It's the question that the Vols hope is not asked after this season. If it is, Tennessee is in trouble.

I'm not sure Tennessee's 108-yard rushing average – its worst since 1964 – was a fluke last season. The Vols had shown a decline – with the exception of 2004 – in running the ball since 2001.

That figure looks even worse when you consider the Vols had minus-11 rushing yards against Florida, and less than 85 against Air Force, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Penn State. UT lost three of those games.

But I'm convinced the Vols will be a much better rushing team this fall. I'm convinced for three reasons: 1. An improved offensive line, 2. Improved running backs, 3. A softer schedule.

Tennessee will go from 108 rushing yards per game to about 140 – which would have ranked seventh last season in the SEC. But that's a lot better than 10th.

I think the offensive line will be improved in four of five positions and that the second year of a mostly zone blocking scheme will produce results.

I don't think UT will face as many good run defenses as a year ago. California lost three of its best players on the front seven. Florida lost all but one of its front seven players. Alabama will have its weakest defensive line in years. Kentucky and Vanderbilt don't exactly mirror the Berlin Wall. Arkansas State and Louisiana Lafayette shouldn't provide much resistance.

Georgia, Arkansas and Mississippi State, which ranked three, four and five, respectively, in the SEC in run defense a year ago, won't be nearly as good up front based on personnel losses.

The only team on last year's schedule that will have a better run defense this season is South Carolina.

The third reason for UT's run-game improvement will be the running backs.

In the SEC, Arkansas is the only team that clearly has a better collection of running backs than Tennessee's trio.

And each of the Vols' backs has something to prove.

After gaining 879 yards as a redshirt freshman, Foster managed just 322 yards during an injury plagued season, capped by a difference-making fumble against Penn State in the Outback Bowl. But he was undoubtedly UT's best back in the spring.

``Arian made a real commitment to himself to be coachable, to listen, to take better care of the ball, to run like we expect him to run,'' said Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe.

``He really got to dancing, as we all know, so much last year, it created a lot of issues for us. He's pushed himself past that.''

Foster didn't just catch Cutcliffe's eye. He caught the attention of defensive coordinator John Chavis.

``There's no doubt, Foster's on top of his game right now,'' Chavis said.

LaMarcus Coker was the home-run threat last season, turning in two runs of over 85 yards and averaging 6.4 yards per carry. But he's got to stay out of the doghouse.

``LaMarcus has got a ton of talent and can break it at any time,'' Cutcliffe said.

Montario Hardesty gained just 384 yards and averaged 3.6 yards per carry one year removed from a torn ACL that robbed him of some quickness and lateral movement. Before his injury, he was ahead of Coker and Foster on the depth chart in the fall of ‘05.

``If you like football, you've got to like watching Montario Hardesty play and run,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He's certainly the most physical guy we've got back there. He plays that way.''

Having faced those backs in the spring, Chavis is excited about their potential.

``They all do things a little differently and they all have their strengths, but I was impressed with our backs all spring long,'' Chavis said.

``With Coker's speed, if you don't keep leverage, he'll run away from you. And Hardesty, he doesn't mind running over you. He runs with great power and speed. We can have an outstanding rotation with those three guys.''

Tennessee's rushing totals could be altered if the team falls behind and is forced to rely on the passing game to play catch-up.

But considering UT's concern about the wideouts, I expect Tennessee to rely more on the run game this season.

And it will have to produce for UT to have a chance to win the East Division.

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