Rush to judgment

Tennessee's offensive players are convinced that new coordinator Dave Clawson's attack is going to accomplish two things:

1. The Vols will run the ball more in 2008 than they did in 2007.

2. The Vols will run the ball better in 2008 than they did in 2007.

No one is happier about these developments than Tennessee's offensive linemen. Delivering a lick in run blocking is a lot more fun than absorbing a lick in pass protection.

"If you ask any offensive linemen, he'd rather pound the rock and do it well," junior center Josh McNeil said recently. "With this offense, I definitely think running the football is going to be a lot bigger emphasis."

Although he is careful not to second-guess former Vol offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, McNeil believes Tennessee should've given the ground game more opportunities last fall.

"There's a lot of times when we needed to run the ball last year," McNeil said, "and we really didn't – whether it was (a matter of) controlling the clock or really needing a balanced offense."

Tennessee was a decidedly pass-happy team in 2007. The Vols threw for nearly twice as many yards per game (262.5) as they ran for (139.0). Tennessee rushed the ball just 21 times in Game 3 at Florida and 19 times in Game 7 at Alabama, losing the former 59-20 and dropping the latter 41-17. Neither game got out of hand until the fourth quarter, so blaming the shortage of rushes on UT being in full-blown comeback mode simply does not work.

Historically, Tennessee's most successful offenses have been the ones featuring enough balance to run the ball effectively and throw the ball effectively, thereby keeping the opposing defense guessing prior to every snap.

"That's one thing we're really working on," McNeil said. "We want to be able to run the ball when we want to and throw the ball when we want to. That's the big thing we're putting a lot of emphasis on this season."

The extensive use of fullbacks Kevin Cooper and Austin Johnson during spring practice suggests the Vols are planning to "pound the rock" a lot more in '08 than they did in '07. Naturally, Tennessee's running backs find this prospect exciting.

"We're going to run the ball," junior tailback Montario Hardesty noted. "We have a fullback, which I like, so I think we're going to run the ball more."

Many fans love the passing game because it presents greater opportunity for more substantial gains. But even pass-happy Vol fans were disappointed last fall when Tennessee routinely threw the ball on third-and-2 and third-and-1 situations. The Vols' offensive linemen were disappointed, too.

"You do what you've got to do to get the first down," McNeil said. "As offensive linemen, though, on third-and-one we want to run the ball or run a quarterback sneak ... whatever."

By regularly calling for pass plays on third-and-short situations, Cutcliffe essentially exhibited a lack of confidence that Vol blockers could create enough of a crease for the tailback to pick up one or two yards. McNeil and his fellow blockers found this a little insulting.

"When that type of thing happens, it definitely gets under our skin a little bit, makes us mad," he said, pausing before diplomatically adding: "But we have to prove on a consistent basis that we can get that third-and-one every time.

"Then we'll get the confidence for them to make the call every time."


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