No wonder. The offensive linemen are slimmer, quicker, stronger and tougher. The backs are hitting holes harder, then running north and south. Even so, Ainge says the improvement in the ground attack is more mental than physical.
"I think it's an attitude thing, personally," he said.
Specifically, he believes the linemen have developed the mental toughness needed to exploit the physical toughness they acquired last spring.
"A lot of those guys are the same guys who were playing last year but their bodies are stronger and faster," Ainge said. "But more than anything it's an attitude."
Tennessee must've needed a new attitude because its run blocking was mediocre last fall. That forced the Vols to rely more heavily on the passing attack than they preferred. Knowing UT would be throwing on most second- and third-down plays enabled opposing defenses to ignore the run threat last fall. Ainge expects that to change this fall.
"Being able to run the football can not only set the tone; it can set the tempo of the whole offense for the season," he said. "Every defense wants to stop the run, and the harder you make it on them to stop the run, the better the passing game's going to be."
Ainge completed a school-record 67 percent of his passes last fall, yet he could be even more effective this season. Having a complementary ground game to share the offensive load should make his job simpler.
"It makes it that much easier," he said. "They (defenses) can't play double safety and all of these different coverages. They're going to have to come down and get in your face to try and stop the run. If you're good at receiver and quarterback and you can protect, that makes your job that much easier."
Being a former offensive lineman and offensive line coach, Vol head man Phillip Fulmer was understandably upset with a 2006 ground attack that averaged just 108 yards per game. He and line coach Greg Adkins made upgrading the run blocking a top priority for 2007. So far, so good.
"I think we've run the ball better here in camp, and I hope that continues as we go along," Fulmer said. "That certainly takes a lot of pressure off of our defense if we can have sustained drives. In each of our scrimmages we've had sustained drives and in each of our scrimmages we've punched it in ... gone ahead and got it in the end zone. That's the plus side of it."
Tennessee ran the ball sparingly in Tuesday's scrimmage. Basically, the backs were a little tired after scrimmaging on Saturday night.
"Once the running backs get their legs back – they're back to running fast like they have been – I think it'll look even better," Ainge said of the ground attack. "Coach Fulmer and Coach Adkins are doing such a good job with the offensive line."
Although the offensive linemen are better than they were in 2006, they still have plenty of room for improvement.
"They've got to go out every single day – keep getting better, stronger, faster, quicker … all that stuff," Ainge said. "But I like where we're at right now."