If He Builds It, They Will Run

Tennessee had an off week in the middle of an off season, but reminders of their missing running game were on dramatic display in the NFL Sunday.

During a season when the Vols vaunted rush attack has vanished, former Vols ran wild at football's highest level. James "Little Man" Stewart piled up a career-high 172 yards and two touchdowns in 32 carries and picked up another 28 yards in two receptions to lead the Detroit Lions to a 23-20 victory over the Chicago Bears. Travis "The Cheese" Henry gained 132 yards in 22 attempts to help Buffalo knock off Miami. Jamal Lewis picked up 119 yards in 32 carries and gained 37 yards on a reception as the Ravens topped the Jaguars. Charlie Garner gained 24 yards in seven runs for the Oakland Raiders and picked up another 80 yards in seven receptions for a 104-yard total in 14 touches.

All totaled these four former Vol tailbacks, who have gone on to become established NFL starters, gained 597 yards against defenses that would make No. 1 Miami's defense look like a Division II weakling. Stewart, Henry, Lewis and Garner are all on pace to surpass 1,000 yards rushing this season which is something no current Vol can boast.

Jabari Davis leads Tennessee with 340 yards for an average of 56.7 yards per contest. At that pace he would finish with 680 yards in 12 games. His career-high is 135 yards which came in a six-overtime game against Arkansas. Cedric Houston who has been injured and out of action for two games has 193 yards for an average of 38.6 yards per outing. Troy Fleming is third with 100 yards in 19 attempts for an average of 16.7 yards per contest. Add the production of Tennessee's top three backs and you have 633 yards or just 36 yards more than the four former Vols gained in one day in the NFL.

So has the quality of Tennessee's running backs reached a Phillip Fulmer era low? Is the offensive line woefully inept? Or is the problem, as has been suggested by offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, the need for another good wide receiver to prevent defenses from stacking up against the run?

Let's take the last question first. True, the Vols could use a complementary receiver to Kelley Washington, although Jason Witten is the best tight end UT has had in two decades and Tony Brown has become a reliable pass catcher with 22 catches for 267 yards good for 12.1 yards per catch. At his current pace, Brown will finish the year with 44 catches for 534 yards which isn't bad for a possession receiver.

In fact, in the 2000 season, Cedric Wilson led the Vols with 62 catches for 681 yards or just 147 yards more than Brown is on pace to produce. Tennessee's second leading receiver that season was Eric Parker, who started with Wilson and finished the 2000 campaign with 35 catches for 352 yards and one touchdown. The Vols starting tight end that season was John Finlayson who had a total of 6 catches for 79 yards and one touchdown in 11 games. Compare that to Witten who has already caught 19 passes for 249 yards and four touchdowns. In only four games this season, Washington already has 443 yards which means he's nearly doubling Wilson's yardage pace in 2000.

The point is that Tennessee currently has three starters that are producing much better than the 2000 starters. Presumably, based on Sander's theory, Tennessee's defensive opponents could have loaded up against the run that year, and yet, Travis Henry led the Vols with 1,314 yards rushing in 11 games of the 2000 season for an average of 119.5 yards per game.

Since that comparison doesn't appear to bear out the stacked defense theory, can we assume that Tennessee's offensive line in 2000 was just simply a whole lot better than the 2002 edition? Well, that's largely a subjective matter since stats on offensive line play aren't readily available, but, in truth, the 2000 line looked a whole lot like the 2002 line — just younger.

Three starters Michael Munoz, Anthony Herrera and Scott Wells are also starters this year. The other starters were Toby Champion, a fifth-year senior who never started until replacing an injured Will Ofenheusle in game five in 2000. The other starter was Reggie Coleman, who was also starting for the first time after backing up Chad Clifton in 1999.

This year Tennessee has a more mature Ofenheusle and veterans Jason Respert and Sean Young. Since Ofenheusle was starting ahead of Champion as a sophomore, it's fair to assume he's better as a senior, and at 6-8, 320, he's certainly bigger. Either Respert or Young compared to Coleman might be a wash, although both came in with better credentials than Coleman and depth would be superior.

So if Tennessee didn't have a superior line in 2000 and if the receivers aren't better than the current Vols, the problem has to be the running backs. Right?

This is another question that is hard to answer because we know how good Travis Henry and Travis Stephens are, but we don't know how good Houston, Davis, Tinsley or Gerald Riggs might become. Henry struggled as a true freshman and almost left the team. Stephens had to take a redshirt to get his year in the spotlight as a fifth-year senior. Likewise Henry had his big year as a senior after playing second fiddle to Lewis. However Henry and Stephens certainly had more experience than anyone the Vols currently have, but under Fulmer Tennessee fans have grown accustomed to seeing one great back replace another as NFL rosters validate, so it's safe to assume there is plenty of talent on hand and with greater depth than 2000. (Of course, with Henry you didn't really need depth since he didn't get warmed up good until he had 20 to 25 carries.)

There's no disputing the credentials of Tennessee's current stable: Davis was rated No. 2 in the nation's Class of 2000, Tinsley was No. 4, Houston was No. 7 and Riggs was No. 2 in the Class of 2002. It's doubtful Tennessee's problems running the ball are related to talent at tailback, although experience is a variable especially with Riggs. Besides an average small college back could gain 1,000 yards at the Division I level given good blocking. Remember Tony Thompson gained 1,261 yards for the Vols in 1990 with no game experience, minimal size and nominal talent.

So if it's not the receivers, the offensive line or the running backs — what the heck if it?

No doubt defenses are stacking the box which is going to make it more difficult to run consistently. And the only way to make defenses back off is to make them pay. Defenses are double-teaming Washington and using single coverage on Brown. They're usually covering Witten with a safety and help from a linebacker, or a check from a defensive end, or both. With this type of man coverage, the Vols should be able to isolate a back on a linebacker, or even a wide receiver on a linebacker in a spread formation with a single back. To avoid those type of mismatches, defenses are going to go to dime coverage or elect to cover Witten with a linebacker. If they go to dime coverage, Tennessee should be able to run the ball especially if Washington takes two defenders deep.

The other IF is part of the problem. Because IF Tennessee's wide receivers don't do their job blocking there won't be many long runs. But there should be consistent gains UNLESS the lead blocker isn't opening holes at the point of attack.

Those are two of the problems that have derailed the Vols running game along with the shuffle of personnel at offensive guard. Fleming hasn't had a good year blocking and he's not nearly the load Bartholomew was clearing the way for Henry in 2000.

If using Fulmer's pound the rock analogy: think of the offensive line as the muscled biceps that swing the sledge hammer and think of the fullback as the sledge hammer. Ideally, the offensive line clears the way allowing the fullback to slam full force into the linebacker. Win your share of those battles and you'll move the sticks and wear down defenses.

So Tennessee's solution could be a shift of personnel with Davis playing fullback and either Houston or Riggs running tailback with Tinsley providing the occasional change of pace. That is a way to get two good backs in the game at the same time while getting better size and speed at fullback. This sort of alignment would be particularly effective if James Banks is the quarterback, as he might be Saturday against Alabama. With Banks at the controls, the Vols could run some option and have three big-play threats in the backfield at one time.

All of this is based on Davis being able to block, but that's something he can be taught. In fact, it shouldn't be a difficult adjustment for somebody used to running tackler over. You just do the same thing without the ball. He's certainly fits the description of a bruising fullback and with his speed he could take advantage of some of the quick traps the Vols used so effectively with Sean Bryson. The threat of a quick-hitting fullback would also limit some of the opposition's stunts and blitzes.

Of equal importance, such a personnel move gets Riggs involved in the running game, where he'll eventually prove to be the best pure tailback Tennessee has.

The Vols may be facing the best run defense they have seen this year in Alabama, and at midseason the running game is in spring practice form. Tennessee's chances of reclaiming the 2002 campaign are rapidly running out and it may time to make some moves.

To amend an old cliché: If it's broke, fix it.

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