What's wrong with O-line?

To get favorable matchups Tennessee's offensive linemen are being coached to flip-flop from one side to the other this year. So far, the strategy is half successful: They've certainly flopped.

Granted, quarterbacks Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens have experienced growing pains. Granted, the tight ends have dropped some catchable balls. Granted, the wideouts have failed to consistently get separation. Granted, the running backs have missed some opportunities to turn small gains into big gains. No one on offense has played well thus far.

Still, a starting line that returned intact from 2007 was supposed to be the biggest strength on offense. Instead, it has been the biggest disappointment for a team that ranks last among the 12 SEC programs in pass efficiency, 11th in third-down conversions, 10th in scoring and 10th in Red-Zone success.

Asked earlier this week if the line is where it needs to be, head coach Phillip Fulmer answered with uncharacteristic candor.

"No," he said. "We haven't played up to our ability yet this year."

Being a former offensive lineman and offensive line coach, Fulmer has a soft spot for the big uglies up front. As a result, he tends to temper his criticism with a few words of praise. Even he won't sugar-coat the line's obvious shortcomings, however.

"We've had some good moments," the head man said. "We've rushed the football pretty well at different times but we have not been nearly as consistent as we need to be from a physical execution standpoint.... We'll have four guys do a great job and one guy get beat ... It's been a real frustrating year for those guys to this point."

Given that they are having to learn new terminology, a new scheme, new run-blocking assignments, a new pass-protection package AND the flip-flop wrinkle this season, Tennessee's linemen may well be confused. Line coach Greg Adkins denies this, however, as do the blockers themselves. Still, the results on the field make you wonder. The Vols already have allowed more sacks in five games this fall (7) than they did in 14 games last fall (4).

"I don't think our guys are pass protecting any worse than they did a year ago," first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said. "It's just that, at times, we're not getting the ball out quick enough. There were situations last year that guys (pass rushers) were cut loose, and Erik (Ainge) threw it away or got rid of it before the rush got there. Sacks are on everybody."

With proven tailbacks and unproven quarterbacks, Tennessee hoped to rely more on its runners than its passers this fall. After rushing for 124 yards against a superior Auburn defense in Game 4, however, the Vols managed just 69 yards against an inferior Northern Illinois squad in Game 5.

When asked about the erratic run blocking, Adkins replied: "At times in both games it was good and at times it wasn't good. The consistency is what we're all looking for.... I think the mindset of running the football has been there."

With all five line starters back from '07, Tennessee's run blocking was supposed to be considerably better in '08. It isn't. The Vols are averaging 4.3 yards per carry, up from 4.2 a year ago.

"We've run the ball reasonably well but we haven't had what we call explosive plays like we'd like to have," Fulmer said.

Tennessee's offensive coaches chart and categorize each run to see which play calls are productive and which ones aren't. Naturally, the productive plays tend to be called a lot more often.

"There are some runs where we're averaging 6.9 yards and others where we're averaging 5.0," Fulmer said. "Then you find 'Why is this one 2.2?' You go back and study it."

One play that hasn't been productive is the smash up the middle. With Tennessee facing a second-and-one and needing but one first down to seal a 13-9 defeat of Norther Illinois last weekend, the Vols ran Montario Hardesty into the middle of the line three times. The first try gained nothing. The second lost a yard. The third lost two yards, turning the ball over on downs. Clawson was understandably disappointed and concerned.

"That's a situation that we need to get push and we need to finish the game," he said. "But there's other times this year, like against Florida and Auburn – against very, very tough looks – that our offensive line has played extremely well."

Since points win games, Tennessee's struggles to run the ball effectively in the Red Zone are the greatest concern.

"When it's a shorter field, it's easier to pack the field and protect the field," said senior guard Anthony Parker, a preseason All-American. "That's when we really have to concentrate on execution. And it's just not getting done. We've got to work harder to get it done."

Another of Tennessee's most critical problems is the inability to make big plays. Better protection from the line would give Vol receivers more time to get open deep and give Vol quarterbacks more time to find them. Similarly, better run blocking from the line would give Vol tailbacks more long-gain opportunities. A few big plays might make a world of difference for the Big Orange attack unit.

"Football, of course, is a game of confidence," Parker said. "When somebody makes a big play it gives the rest of the guys confidence. When we get that confidence, we start clicking a little more."

Maybe the key to more clicking is less flopping.

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