Admittedly, there aren't any simple answers to how an offense with four high school All-Americans in the line, five in the backfield and projected NFL first round choices at quarterback, wide receiver and tight end could only average 129 yards per game on the ground against a slate that includes: winless Wyoming, winless MTSU and 1-4 Rutgers.
When things are that out of kilter you can't help but to seize upon a simple explanation to address a matrix of contributing factors.
Having spent untold hours watching game tape, I've come to realize there aren't any simple answers. (By the way, TV game tape is an effective way to break down the running game while it is inconclusive for studying the passing game.) Through slow-motion viewing and frame-by-frame breakdown it offers a clear window on the war in the trenches. What it reveals about Tennessee is there are a series of problems. For instance: while the offensive line is no doubt talented, it is not yet operating as a unit or at optimal efficiency
Generally speaking there seems to be some confusion across the line about blocking assignments, especially against the variety of stunting and blitzing schemes the Vols have seen so far. The pass protection has improved and when this group comes off the line together with bad intentions they can whip a D-line off the landscape.
Some of the problems have been at the point of the attack after the O-line has set the table. Fleming at 226 pounds doesn't have the pop that a Will Bartholomew had at 248, and at times he appears overmatched against big linebackers.
At other times, Tennessee hasn't received good down-field blocking when a big gain was about to break open. At times, it's the failure of one of the tight ends to get a seal on the corner, or the back to pick up his feet hitting the hole or missing the hole all together.
Coach Fulmer has alluded to Tennessee's need to stick to the run longer and I agree that it might help develop a rhythm that1s not currently there. It might also allow one of the backs to get a better feel for the game and gain some momentum.
You see there isn't a simple answer, but the most simple solution is to put your best back in the game and give him the ball. I don't know who that back might be as all have shown flashes of fine skills, but none to this point seems complete in terms of speed, vision, strength, size, durability and, most of all, the ability to consistently make the first tackler miss.
With so many defenders dedicated to stopping the running game, the best situation Tennessee's blocking scheme can often produce is to put the back one-on-one with a defender and give him room to make a move. Travis Stephens demonstrated the significance of that skill last year when he set a school single-season rushing record at Tennessee. Virtually all of his big runs, particularly in his stellar performance vs. Florida, were made possible by that open-field wiggle and burst, that shift, glide and cut that leaves would-be tacklers grasping at air.
Of course, we haven't seen enough of Gerald Riggs Jr. to know how effective he might be one-on-one, but coming out of high school he appeared to be the most complete back the Vols had recruited among the current stable.
Coaches indicate his problem progressing into more playing time is pass protection. It's certainly understandable during a year when the Vols have been hit with so many injuries that you don1t want to endanger your QB anymore than he already is. However if UT can't consistently run the ball, he's at an even greater risk from defenses teeing off on the pass rush.
Maybe Riggs isn't the answer, but on a team that doesn't yet have a single back with as much as 200 rushing yards total through four games, he's at the very least a viable option.
Speaking of viable options, while the Vols are sputtering on offense, it's a little frustrating to know they could be driving a Cadillac. I recently ran across a story I filed in 2001 about the commitment of Carnell "Cadillac" Williams to the Vols and found myself wondering: what if?
What follows is a few excerpts from that story written in January 2001: "Tennessee addressed a major need at running back tonight with confirmation of a verbal commitment from Carnell "Cadillac" Williams of Attalla, Ala., rated the nation's No. 5 rated tailback.
Though there are four running backs rated ahead of Williams, many, including this writer, regard him as the best pure running back on the board.
Considering the need at running back, the commitment by Williams could be the biggest the Vols get this season, although Derrick Tinsley, Cedric Houston and DeAirius Howard are other top runners believed to be headed to the Vols. How this will impact the recruitment of Miami star runner Frank Gore and Stone Mountain, Ga., tailback Jabari Davis is anyone's guess at this point. But Tennessee appears in shape to sign four of the nation's best runners in a recruiting year deep with quality backs.
Williams may well prove to be the greatest of them all and he goes a long way toward securing a successful recruiting season by the Vols.2
As we know, Williams reversed that commitment and signed on with Auburn, after Tommy Tuberville and his entire Tiger coaching staff engaged in what amounted to an intervention during an official home visit.
You have to give Tuberville credit for turning Williams, like you have to give Coach Fulmer credit for committing him. The UT coach also deserves kudos for making the Cadillac a top priority two years ago when the Vols began pursuing him with a passion.
Additionally, in landing Davis, Houston and Tinsley, the Vols signed three of the nation's top 7 running backs from the Class of 2001. Then in 2003 they signed Riggs who was rated No. 2 nationally.
One of that talented All-American trio which UT did sign in 2001 might yet prove to be Williams equal, but last week against Syracuse Williams rushed for more yards in one game than either Houston, Davis or Tinsley have managed to compile in four.
Oh well, looking back isn't always fun, but it's often interesting and it vividly underscores why recruiting is so fascinating to so many of us.