Running Lane

Tennessee's ground game is a lot like the Easter Bunny. Everybody keeps hearing about it but nobody ever sees it.

The Big Orange ran the football just 399 times in 2005, gained a paltry 1,411 rushing yards, recorded the fewest rushing touchdowns (10) since 1959 and said goodbye to offensive coordinator Randy Sanders.

Successor David Cutcliffe promised to beef up the ground attack, yet the 2006 Vols ran the ball fewer times (382) for even fewer yards (1,404), despite playing two more games.

When Dave Clawson took over for Cutcliffe in 2008 he, too, promised to emphasize the running game. Instead, Tennessee rushed just 409 times for a mere 1,475 yards.

Given all of the above, Tennessee supporters are understandably skeptical when new head coach Lane Kiffin and new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney vow to upgrade the ground attack in 2009. The fans have heard this song before.

Kiffin, however, insists that he is committed to the ground attack and will remain so, even when it appears to be stalling. He says he developed his devotion to the run game during his brief stint as head coach of the NFL's Oakland Raiders in 2007 and '08.

"It was a very valuable learning experience for me, going from just being offensive coordinator at Southern Cal to being head coach and play caller at Oakland," Kiffin said recently. "When you've never been a head coach, you just see things from your offensive perspective. You don't see things from your team perspective.

"When you're head coach and you're responsible for the defense, as well, I changed a little bit in that mentality. I used to not think anything about the mentality of the entire team."

Now he does. Kiffin understands that a strong rushing attack helps your defense, as well as your offense. That was the most valuable lesson he learned during his stint with the Raiders.

"Oakland had never been higher than 29th in rushing in the previous four years; we went to sixth the first year there," Kiffin recalled. "That's because when I got there I figured it out: The mentality of your team is so important. If you can't run the ball and you can't prove you run the ball, you become one of those play-callers who says, 'Oh, it doesn't work, so I'm going to throw the ball 15 times in a row.' Or you call runs just to call them and keep your numbers up but you're not really into the run game."

Clearly, Kiffin got "really into the run game" during Year 1 at Oakland. The ground attack was the overwhelming focus of the Raider attack.

"At one point we were first in the league in rushing during that first year," he recalled. "We were first in number of carries, so obviously there were a bunch of run plays being called."

Maybe - just maybe - Kiffin isn't giving lip service when he promises to develop a potent ground game at Tennessee. Maybe he will emphasize the run in Knoxville, as he did in Oakland.

"I became a much better run-game coach there and developed a much better understanding of how important it is for your defense - if you're going to be a physical team, a dominant team - for you to be a great running team," Kiffin said. "That was very valuable to me, so I'm very committed to the run game."

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