Photo by Michael Patrick, copyright © 2011 // Buy this photo
Tennessee's tailbacks stood on one side of a narrow training arch during the early portion of Tuesday's practice. Two walk-on linebackers were placed on the other side.
One by one, running backs coach Jay Graham gave his players a ball and some instructions: Fight your way through the hole, but don't let go of the football.
Tennessee backs have lost fumbles only twice in four games this year, but it's those little things that are under extra scrutiny as the Vols (3-1, 0-1 SEC) prepare to face No. 5 Georgia (4-0, 2-0) Saturday (TV: WVLT, 3:30 p.m.) at Sanford Stadium in Athens.
The trip to Georgia begins a grueling four-game swing in the middle of the Vols' schedule that will determine just how much progress the team — and the running game — has made from a year ago.
Tennessee coaches and players talked all August about improvement in the ground attack, and the early returns have been positive. The Vols have 690 rushing yards, 246 more than they had through four games last year.
Last year's game against Georgia was especially bleak. In 23 carries, Tennessee lost 20 yards. Two games earlier against Florida, the Vols carried for minus-9 yards. By the end of the season, the Vols were still dead last in rushing yards in SEC games, averaging only 63.5 yards per league game.
So while the Vols have improved on the ground this year, skepticism about the team's progress is understandable.
Junior tackle Ja'Wuan James, who endured all of last year's low points, said he believes the running game has turned the corner. He says missed opportunities have kept it from being even better.
"Most of the time, the running game is us killing ourselves," James said Tuesday. "It's mostly us miscommunicating or getting on the wrong guys or us just not blocking well. We've done a lot technically this offseason and it's showing a little bit now that we're going doing better in the run game."
Rajion Neal has 52 percent of the Vols' rushing yardage (356 yards on 80 carries). He has yet to break a big run (his long is 29), but he's been a steady and reliable ball carrier inside.
"I have confidence in myself and I just get more and more confident in the guys around me that are helping me," Neal said. "If we get the running game started, it's going to be a long game."
Neal wasn't being boastful, but simply suggesting that a balanced offense could take the team to heights that a one-dimensional one could not. The running game's demise in 2011 left little help for quarterback Tyler Bray and the passing game, which struggled to carry the offensive burden. That's why having some success in the running game Saturday — even if it's just a little — is so important.
"It's very important," said James. "It's important against any opponent. It helps the whole offense. It helps the whole team, really. If we're running the ball, they have to respect that and maybe add another guy in the box. That would definitely help out all our receivers and Tyler."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.