Tennessee football practice on Oct. 31, 2012
Checking in with Sam Pittman, I wondered what Tennessee's new offensive line coach was thinking about his maiden voyage through the SEC.
Was the nation's toughest conference everything he expected it to be?
"Everything?'' Pittman said Wednesday. "No. It was more.''
Through 25 years and 13 jobs, mostly in the Midwest, Pittman has seen his share of big, violent bodies trying to dislodge each other in trench warfare.
He's done the MAC, the Big 12 and most recently the ACC at North Carolina.
That was a prelude to a season where he's had to challenge three defenses ranked in the top 13 nationally — Alabama, Florida and South Carolina — plus Mississippi State (28) and Georgia (38).
"I didn't know the league was going to be so darn good on the defensive line,'' Pittman said.
"I'd always heard about it, but when they throw somebody else in there that didn't even start that might be better than the guy in front of him ..."
It is both to Pittman's relief and to his credit that Tennessee has not backed down in any case.
The offensive line is, collectively, the MVP of UT's season.
OK, they didn't exactly knock Alabama's block off. Name somebody who has.
Otherwise, the Vols have moved the ball well enough that this team should not be 0-5 in the league as the calendar turns to November.
Pittman inherited good material. Four starters returned from a 2011 unit that was somehow never as effective as it should have been, especially in the run game.
And the new starter was Tiny Richardson, a special talent lacking only experience. Richardson no longer lacks that.
"Tiny wouldn't be ready to play Jadeveon Clowney the first two or three weeks,'' Pittman said, "but he was on Saturday.''
Despite the killer lineup of defenses UT has faced, quarterback Tyler Bray has been sacked only four times. The run game has upgraded from pitiful to at least run-of-the-mill, averaging 69 more yards per game than last year.
Jim Chaney sees a unit playing with confidence.
"Sam brings energy and a love for the players,'' Chaney said. "That's paramount in college football.
"He's a good football coach and a good human being. Usually, they work hand in hand.''
When Pittman took over last winter and watched video he had a clue why UT could not run the ball.
Technique, talent and size were all accounted for. But tempo was missing.
"We weren't playing fast enough,'' he said.
"Speed becomes explosion which becomes power. Some of the techniques are the same, some are different. But playing fast gave us a chance to play physical and the guys bought into it.''
UT's run game improved to the point of being robust at Georgia (197 yards) and Mississippi State (213).
But then Alabama was tough sledding. Pittman said South Carolina was a low point of the season.
Getting right guard Zach Fulton back Saturday against Troy will be a plus. Getting Rajion Neal healthy at tailback will help, too.
"We're going back to the drawing board,'' Pittman said, "making a big emphasis.
"We're not (just) a pass-protection offensive line.''
Not this year.