UT tailback, Tauren Poole, talks about the new practice regime under Coach Kiffin. March 26, 2009 Interview by Drew Edwards/News Sentinel Watch »
UT offensive coordinator, Jim Chaney, speaks with the media after practice, March 26, 2009 Watch »
The job description for Tennessee's offensive linemen these days is pretty simple. When in doubt, hit somebody, and the harder the better.
"A lot of the coaches say if you don't know what to do just come out and hit somebody in front of you," tackle Cody Pope says. "It's pretty simple."
As spring practice continues this morning, the offensive line will continue working on what coach Lane Kiffin wants to become the Vols' calling card - a physical, zone-blocking scheme.
"We've got to be a physical offense, and that starts up front with the way we go about it in the running game," Kiffin said. "We've got to learn how to run zone. We've got to learn to be so good at it that it doesn't matter who you play and where you play and what front they're in, that you can do it."
Zone blocking, used widely in the NFL, is based mostly on a few simple principles. If a defensive player lines up directly in front of an offensive lineman, that player is his primary responsibility. If an offensive player isn't "covered" by a defensive player, he double-teams a defender in the direction the play is supposed to go.
The most important part - and toughest to master - comes after both players have initially engaged the defender. The two linemen then must decide who will peel off their current block and move upfield to take on a second-level defender, usually a linebacker.
Other zone concepts focus on players taking a designated path after the snap and blocking anyone who crosses their path.
So far, it's been all zone all the time, and the early returns have been good, says offensive coordinator and line coach Jim Chaney.
"I think they're picking it up very good," he said. "It's foreign to them, it really has been. But they're learning and trying hard and doing everything we've asked them to do and ultimately that's all we can ask of them. They're trying hard and by the end of spring I think they'll understand conceptually what we're trying to get done and they'll be fine."
UT has used some zone concepts in the past, but zone has been at the heart of everything UT has done on the practice field so far.
"It's 100 percent zone," Chaney said. "That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to hang our hat and get them involved with that and see where it goes."
One of the advantages of zone blocking is that a play can go almost anywhere.
Inside runs in particular quite often result in cutback lanes for running backs, which means that backs must quickly pick their opening and move upfield.
"(Running backs) coach (Eddie) Gran just emphasizes that we've got to read the down linemen," tailback Tauren Poole said. "That's what we do. He tells us to hit the nearest crease. We just come out here every day and listen to his coaching."
Another benefit to zone blocking is that it values quickness and athleticism on the offensive line over sheer size.
"You can play with some guys that run fast, don't have to be 375 pounds to run these schemes," Chaney said. "That's the fun part of it - you're playing with more athletic players on the football field, which coach (Kiffin) believes in strongly philosophically and I adhere to that myself. We agree on that, and it's fun to see as we develop the young athletes to see who can be the best one to get on the field."
While UT has little proven depth on the offensive line, center Josh McNeil sees plenty of players who fit the description up front.
"You snap the ball and fire off and you go," McNeil says. "Whoever you see first, you knock the fire out of him. It just allows you to go 100 percent.
"We got a lot of boys that come off the ball 100 percent that can definitely do their jobs."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.