Mike Strange: Vols' woeful running game needs a fresh start

Mike Strange
Mike Strange: Vols' woeful running game needs a fresh start

Photo by Adam Brimer, copyright © 2012

Rajion Neal on competing for the starting running back position

Dooley answers questions about the Vols' offense

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"It's time for a change. And time to change things we've been doing in the past."

Surprisingly, those words didn't come from a political ad on TV this weekend.

They came from Tennessee tailback Rajion Neal.

But when it comes to the Vols' running game, the above promise would win in a bipartisan landslide.

A graph of Tennessee's run-game production reveals a trend more dismal than Facebook stock values. The Vols bottomed out last year at 1,081 yards, a 90.1 average per game, the puniest total since 1964.

Neal, a junior, confirmed everyone is familiar with the unhappy data.

"They remind us but they don't let us dwell on it,'' he said.

"Everybody is moving on, not forgetting but putting it on the back burner and staying productive and positive as much as we can.''

There was nothing positive in the run department in these particular games last fall: minus-9 yards against Florida, minus-21 against Georgia, 35 against South Carolina and 61 against Kentucky.

I wouldn't dwell on that either. Better to declare a clean slate.

Spring practice was slanted toward improving the run. Derek Dooley hired a former UT star, Jay Graham, to coach the position previously entrusted to a grad assistant coach. Reviews have been uniformly thumbs-up.

Furthermore,starter Tauren Poole graduated. The job is up for grabs. Neal and sophomore Marlin Lane are the lead candidates in a crowded field that includes several incoming freshmen.

"I'd like to say we've got a preseason Heisman Trophy guy,'' Dooley said of the candidate pool. "We've got what we've got. I'm kind of excited to see who's gonna emerge.

"But any coach who says 'I'm excited that I don't know who my running back is going to be' is probably lying.''

Unless someone surprises with a Heisman-like August, Dooley doesn't expect to know who his running back is going to be on opening night in the Georgia Dome.

"It's probably going to take a few games to see who will emerge,'' he said.

If no clearly superior back emerges, that's not necessarily the kiss of death. UT has thrived with multi-headed running games in the past.

Come to think of it, so have LSU and Alabama as recently as, well, 2011. It turned out fine for them.

Still, at least one somebody has got to be productive. It could be a new face. Tailback is a position where a gifted freshman can hit the ground running, literally.

Neal, meanwhile, is doing everything in his power to win what he calls for now "a friendly competition" for the No. 1 job.

He averaged 5.0 yards per try last year on 27 carries, easily the best number on the team. And that was while dividing time at receiver. Lane averaged 3.7, the same as Poole.

Neal is no longer a split personality. He's a tailback, and Dooley is looking for a guy who can generate yards after contact.

Neal tailored his diet and his workouts over the summer to being physical enough to run between the tackles, rather than an elusive receiver.

Toward that end, he did the bulk of his weightlifting not with the backs but with the big boys of the offensive line.

"I wanted to bond with those guys and let them know how hard I'm working out for them,'' Neal said, "and vice versa.''

Time will tell if the tactic pays off. At least it was a fresh idea. That's a good thing.

It's time for a change.

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Comments » 16

pingkr62 writes:

It isn't brain surgery. If your blockers can block, your runners can run. G.B.O.!!!

PUL4VOLS writes:

I hope to see many Big Blocks and a lot of Big runs. We are overdue and with a good passing game, we should be grounding it too. Go Vols!

Weatherman writes:

And while you are at it, let's see a kicker emerge as well!

jack4444 writes:

I don't see Neal as a downhill hard hole hitting kind of player like Hardesty for example. If he can be physical he has the talent to be successful.

RunningWithTheVols writes:

Last year it seemed like our OL guys stood up too much and lost their leverage, thus did not get any "push". Wondier if it was due to our DL being under-sized leading to bad habits on Saturday?

OrangePride writes:

He said it, but everyone will agree with it.....we need a "yards after contact" back! Dipping, dodging, juking, and all that stuff that works in HS does NOTHING in the SEC. You look at the great SEC backs; Stevens, Lattimore, Richardson, Lewis.......all of them were able to run thru tackles and gain multiple yards after first contact...add in, "make guys miss in the open field" and you have run game! Let's see if we can put something like that on the field this year. GO VOLS!

volhitman writes:

Maybe it's just me, but I think it would help if Bray could read a defense and check off at the line. Running into the stacked side of the defense doesn't help much.

UTByrd writes:

I definitely don't know all about the X's and O's of football but I do know this: I have noticed that, on 99% of successful offensive teams, the wide receivers know how to block for the run game. Think about it.
It is one aspect of football that does not get enough attention. On any given run play, the success is dictated by how well the whole offense blocks, not just the linemen. When all are on the same page, success follows.
Go VOLS!!!!!

Navaloranges writes:

in response to volhitman:

Maybe it's just me, but I think it would help if Bray could read a defense and check off at the line. Running into the stacked side of the defense doesn't help much.

Maybe it's just me but Bray has only had two one half seasons of games under his belt. That's one full year. Game-wise, he's headed into his sophomore season. So, after one season on the field and two off seasons of conditioning, playbook study, and more defensive alignment study, he should be vastly improved. That's the natural progression of things. You need book AND field study in college football. Bray is on par with any other QB that has that amount of time in. The stigma that Bray cannot "read a defense" is just a stupid rumor started by mental midgets like seventeen, wally, and merlot, on fan sites like this one. They are FAKE "fans" that are here to discredit, nothing more. Bray will be much wiser and more decisive as a junior, naturally.

volhitman writes:

in response to Navaloranges:

Maybe it's just me but Bray has only had two one half seasons of games under his belt. That's one full year. Game-wise, he's headed into his sophomore season. So, after one season on the field and two off seasons of conditioning, playbook study, and more defensive alignment study, he should be vastly improved. That's the natural progression of things. You need book AND field study in college football. Bray is on par with any other QB that has that amount of time in. The stigma that Bray cannot "read a defense" is just a stupid rumor started by mental midgets like seventeen, wally, and merlot, on fan sites like this one. They are FAKE "fans" that are here to discredit, nothing more. Bray will be much wiser and more decisive as a junior, naturally.

I agree and hope your right. It will be fun to see see him develop into the complete package.
GBO

GONAVY writes:

in response to Navaloranges:

Maybe it's just me but Bray has only had two one half seasons of games under his belt. That's one full year. Game-wise, he's headed into his sophomore season. So, after one season on the field and two off seasons of conditioning, playbook study, and more defensive alignment study, he should be vastly improved. That's the natural progression of things. You need book AND field study in college football. Bray is on par with any other QB that has that amount of time in. The stigma that Bray cannot "read a defense" is just a stupid rumor started by mental midgets like seventeen, wally, and merlot, on fan sites like this one. They are FAKE "fans" that are here to discredit, nothing more. Bray will be much wiser and more decisive as a junior, naturally.

Feel better?

Navaloranges writes:

in response to GONAVY:

Feel better?

It's always better when facts are presented. I'll let you and the rest of your screen names handle the fiction.

Navaloranges writes:

in response to andforhisnexttune:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Not a bit of fiction in my post. On the other hand, your is simply that of a Troll/Poser, and pure BS.

There, did that suffice for your attention fix?

allvol32 writes:

Good post Navaloranges! Being attacked by the trolls on this site is the hallmark of a true Vol fan.

murrayvol writes:

in response to Navaloranges:

Not a bit of fiction in my post. On the other hand, your is simply that of a Troll/Poser, and pure BS.

There, did that suffice for your attention fix?

Sadly, they never get enough.

SouthPaVol writes:

in response to UTByrd:

I definitely don't know all about the X's and O's of football but I do know this: I have noticed that, on 99% of successful offensive teams, the wide receivers know how to block for the run game. Think about it.
It is one aspect of football that does not get enough attention. On any given run play, the success is dictated by how well the whole offense blocks, not just the linemen. When all are on the same page, success follows.
Go VOLS!!!!!

good point, Byrd man. about 1 of 4 run plays break the line of scrimmage. If those wideouts block, then we get a 25-30 yd run instead of 8-10 yards. Once the back breaks through the line, he should expect to only have to beat one guy to gain big yardage--not all four defensive backs.

My left-handed comment: if our receivers' coach insists our WRs block--and they can block, if forced to block--then we average 6 yds/carry this year instead of a dismal 3.

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