Progress report

Numbers don't lie, and recent numbers clearly underscore that Tennessee's football program has made significant progress from 2008 to 2009.

Compare the Vols' scores the past three games to the scores against the same opponents from a year earlier:

- Tennessee 45, Georgia 19 (2009) vs. Tennessee 14, Georgia 26 (2008). After losing by 12 points last year, the Vols won by 26 this year ... a difference of plus-38 points.

- Tennessee 10, Alabama 12 (2009) vs. Tennessee 9, Alabama 29 (2008). After losing by 20 points last year, the Vols lost by only 2 this year ... a difference of plus-18 points.

- Tennessee 31, South Carolina 13 (2009) vs. Tennessee 6, South Carolina 27 (2008). After losing by 21 points last year, the Vols won by 18 this year ... a difference of plus-39 points.

For those keeping score at home, Tennessee was 95 points more competitive against the Dawgs, the Tide and the Gamecocks in 2009 than it was in 2008, an average of nearly 32 points per game.

"Those were three teams that really manhandled Tennessee last year," head coach Lane Kiffin conceded, "so that was a big stretch for us right there. If we make a field goal (at the end of the Bama game) we go 3-0 in that stretch."

Senior guard Cory Sullins said the one-year turnarounds against Georgia, Bama and South Carolina are "indicative of the progress we've made. It's a sign of how much progress we've made and how much the coaches are stressing the little nuances of the game that we need to do better."

Sophomore fullback Austin Johnson concurs, noting: "It just shows that we always kept the faith. We knew we had the talent; it was just the execution that was lacking. It seems like we're starting to come along as a team."

The Vols are starting to come along, all right. Their October play against Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina was light-years ahead of their September play in disappointing home-field losses to UCLA and Auburn.

What has fueled the progress?

"It's the way we practice - the intensity and speed," senior defensive tackle Dan Williams said. "You have to bring it every day in practice."

Rapidly emerging as an all-star candidate, Williams said his individual improvement can be traced to the offensive linemen he faces in practice each day - Cody and Cory Sullins, Vladimir Richard and Jacques McClendon.

"When we have the full pads on, you'd better keep your pad level low and shoot your hands because those guys will get you," Williams said. "One time I got high, Jacques caught me and it was over. He slammed me down.

"Those guys compete every day, and they've really helped me. When I go into the game, it almost makes the game easier because I go against great guys every week in practice."

Cory Sullins believes team chemistry is another key factor in Tennessee's midseason surge.

"We've come together as a whole team," he said. "You can see what the defense did for us last Saturday - the three turnovers (that produced a 21-0 lead). Offensively, we're feeling more comfortable. We felt like we should've done a little better last week but the team as a whole keeps coming together. We're playing with a lot more confidence than we did earlier. It's a lot of fun out there right now."

Johnson described UT's recent improvement on offense as "awesome," adding: "The progress is mainly due to the tempo of practice and us buying into Coach (Lane) Kiffin, Coach (Jim) Chaney and the system they're teaching us.

"I think everybody's believing in this offense. And the defense is playing unbelievable. If we get this offense rolling and the defense keeps playing the way it is, the sky's the limit for us."

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