Smiling through the tough times

Tennessee's attack may be broken but offensive coordinator Dave Clawson's spirit is not. Even with the Vols struggling mightily, he is able to smile.

How is that possible?

"I have a great job," the first-year Vol aide said earlier this week. "I still enjoy what I do. I enjoy coaching football. This is a great challenge. I'm excited to get to meetings today, excited to get to practice and find a way to get it done."

He has not found a way to "get it done" thus far. Tennessee ranks 11th among the 12 SEC teams in scoring offense, total offense and rushing offense, 10th in third-down conversions and ninth in passing offense. Those are major reasons the Vols are 3-5 overall and 1-4 in SEC play.

"It's been a challenge for our whole football team and our whole offense," Clawson said. "This isn't how I drew it up but it is what it is. You work with it and you work through it. That's what we're doing."

Last weekend's 29-9 loss to Alabama was the most frustrating setback to date because the Vols thought their offense began to jell in a 34-3 defeat of Mississippi State the previous week.

"You feel like you're making progress in the Mississippi Stage game," Clawson recalled. "We didn't have 400 yards or score 40 points but there were some positive things from that game. We didn't have one penalty. We were snapping the ball early. We were efficient.

"Then to start with the ball on the 5-yard line (vs. Alabama) and have a two-year starter jump offsides, then you miss a protection (leading to a third-down sack) ... those things are really disappointing. It's not acceptable, and it's not good when it happens."

Some observers believe Clawson's new West Coast system is to blame for Tennessee's offensive woes. Phillip Fulmer does not subscribe to this theory.

"It's real easy to say it's the system – it's too complicated and those kind of things," the Vols' head coach said, subsequently adding: "It's my responsibility to see that what we're doing is fundamentally sound, and it is. What we're doing is very fundamentally sound and very workable. We've just got to execute better."

Tennessee's offensive line has not blocked well. The receivers have made almost no plays. The quarterback was so mistake-prone in September that UT had to replace its starter four games into the season and basically start from scratch. All of these are mitigating factors, yet Clawson rarely mentions them.

"A lot of times it can be a defensive mechanism to make excuses," Fulmer said. "Dave is not an excuse-maker at all. He's very, very intelligent and very much a professional. He doesn't care how we get it done – whether it's one back or two backs or wishbone or whatever. We want to score enough points to win games.

"We haven't gotten that result at all. It's complicated by the quarterback change and the quarterback inconsistency. But that's not the only reason. Every position has accountability in that and every coach has accountability in that, starting with me."

Clean-cut, charismatic and articulate, Clawson was a huge hit with Vol fans when he was introduced as the new coordinator last January. Almost nothing has gone right since then, however.

"We've had a lot of honest, frank talks about what we would do differently and what we can do differently now," Fulmer said. "Nobody foresaw this kind of struggles."

Foreseen or not, those struggles started in Game 1 and were still visible in Game 8 last weekend. Through it all, though, Clawson has managed to maintain a positive outlook.

"I've been real impressed with our guys' resiliency," he said. "We've had good practices. I do feel like we're getting better. Unfortunately, that didn't show up on Saturday against a real good Alabama team.

"There's a number of guys on our team that are playing much better right now than they did in the spring, in camp, than they did in the first game. If enough of those things continue, eventually your offense gets better."

Maybe this is the week the blockers, the runners, the receivers and the passer get on the same page. Maybe this is the week they actually give their coordinator a reason to smile. Obviously, that would be a welcomed development.

As Clawson noted: "I'm as disappointed as anybody that we're not playing better than we are at this stage in the season."

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