Finish what you start

If you want to start at tailback for Tennessee, you'd better learn to finish. That's the message second-year running backs coach Kurt Roper is sending to all of the Vols' rushing candidates this preseason.

When he speaks of finishing runs, Roper isn't referring to 70-yard touchdown jaunts. He's merely talking about wringing the maximum out of each carry. Sometimes that means getting four yards instead of three. After all, three four-yard runs produces a first down, whereas three three-yard runs sets up a punt.

Clearly, finishing runs and getting that extra yard can be crucial. Tennessee did a mediocre job of that in 2006, which is one reason the Vols averaged a paltry 108 rushing yards per game last fall. Thus, improvement in that area is a major priority for 2007.

"I want us to finish runs better," Roper said this week. "In this league you're going to play against more than what you can block in the front seven. They (defenses) are going to add people to the box and create angles that are tough on the offensive line. To be able to run for four yards, that last yard a lot of times is going to be through contact."

The Vol aide is looking for backs who are adept at avoiding negative plays, as well as making positive plays.

"You're going to get your yards as the game progresses," he said. "You're not going to get 8, 10, 12 all the time. You're going to run for minus-1, you're going to run for 2, you're going to run for 1. If you can just be smart and not have a really negative run in those situations, we can be physical and be a better running team."

Tennessee is going to be relatively young in the offensive line this fall and green as grass at wide receiver. You wonder: What can the running backs do to reduce the pressure on these inexperienced positions?

"As far as our obligation, it is to be productive and make plays," Roper replied. "Our thought process has to be built on the lines of playing well at our position, and that will help the entire team."

Roper gives his troops three principles to live by:

1.Know what to do

2.Know how to do it fundamentally

3.Make plays

"If they do those three things – while taking care of the football – then they're being productive at that position," Roper said.

Given the inexperience of the line and wideout corps, might that make it even more important that the running backs observe the three principles outlined above?

"I hope it's always important to 'em," Roper said. "I feel like we're a pretty competent group. Guys are working hard, so we feel like we obviously have some responsibilities to this football team."

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