Photo by Michael Patrick, copyright © 2012 // Buy this photo
When a new head coach was hired at North Carolina, offensive line coach Sam Pittman lost his job, but not his paycheck.
Under no obligation to scramble for work, or even work at all in 2012, Pittman could afford to be picky.
So how did he end up at Tennessee, where an underachieving offensive line had led to one of the worst running games in college football?
"I took the job because of the players in that room," said Pittman, referring to the Vols current group of offensive linemen. I knew they were really good players, but for whatever reason just hadn't jelled yet."
The Vols' offensive line has powered a running game that amassed nearly 200 yards against Georgia's vaunted defensive front while keeping Tyler Bray relatively safe. It's gone from being "picked on" as head coach Derek Dooley said Monday, to being one of best units in the league.
The Georgia game went so well for the line that Pittman said he might prefer to play again Saturday rather than take the bye. The Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) next play at Mississippi State on Oct. 13 (TV: ESPN2, 9 p.m.).
"If we weren't healthy, it would be a different story," Pittman said. "But we've still got things to work on."
Pittman, 50, replaced Harry Hiestand, who left to take the same job at Notre Dame in January. His connection to Knoxville was through offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, a longtime friend. But he also was familiar with many of the linemen on the Vols' roster from recruiting the Southeast.
"I had a contract where I didn't have to go to work.
But I wanted to come to Tennessee, because I knew who I was coming to Tennessee with — Chaney, and the (linemen) in that room," Pittman said. "I had recruited a lot of those guys, lost out on recruiting battles for a few of those guys. That's why I wanted to be a part of it."
In addition to the progress in the running game, where the Vols are averaging 177 yards per game, Tennessee's line has surrendered only three sacks — compared to 10 at this time last year and 19 two years ago.
The Vols start a senior (Dallas Thomas), three juniors (Ja'Wuan James, Zach Fulton and James Stone) and a sophomore (Antonio "Tiny" Richardson) on the line. Junior Alex Bullard and sophomore Marcus Jackson play regularly off the bench.
"I think the experience is a factor," Pittman said. "I think they're playing better just because they've seen more game time and they've got more confident. You can't play the game if you're not confident. And now they believe they can. That's a big part of it. And that's a hard thing to get done."
Pittman believes the move to a fast-paced offense, often taxing on linemen, also has been a positive. There's less thinking and more hitting.
"When I came in, we tried to turn them loose," Pittman said.
Chaney has noticed the difference.
"The offensive line is in sync," he said. "They're playing fast and coming off the ball and striking you."
Don't underestimate another factor, Pittman said. After taking their lumps for two years, this group is tired of getting pushed around.
"You can only beat somebody so much and eventually he's going to get up and try to bite you back," Pittman said. "That's what happening with us right now."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.