Ultimately, an unproductive ground attack was a key reason Tennessee posted a 6-7 record last fall. Fixing that problem is Job One as the Vols look ahead to 2011, and no one is more aware of this than offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
Although Tauren Poole ran for 1,034 yards as a junior in 2010, he struggled mightily against Florida (10 carries for 23 yards), Georgia (15 for 51), South Carolina (16 for 33) and North Carolina (11 for 40). Tennessee lost those four games by a cumulative score of 140-82.
On a positive note, Chaney saw signs in spring practice that Poole is determined to be more consistent in 2011.
"Tauren was conscious all spring of becoming a better football player which, in turn, will help us," the coordinator said. "I was pleased with his development. He's a mature kid - too mature at times. I wish he'd act like a kid now and then. He's very serious about what he's doing, and I'm very pleased with him."
Poole was a first-time starter at tailback last fall, and he was running behind five first-time starters in the offensive line - three of them freshmen. Those young blockers added much-needed experience and strength over the past nine months, and that should be conducive to a more potent rushing attack this fall.
"I hope that's what you see," Chaney said. "I hope you see a more physical style of play, and us being able to run the ball more efficiently than we did in the fall. That remains to be seen. Those kids (linemen) are going to be sophomores now. They're no longer freshmen, so they'll be a little bit stronger but it won't be substantial. We feel like we'll be a little bit better in the run."
Head coach Derek Dooley likes to facilitate the ground game by using two-tight end sets quite a bit. Minus 2010 starter and fourth-round NFL Draft pick Luke Stocker, however, the Vols are scrambling to find two dependable tight ends for 2011. Rising junior Mychal Rivera and mid-term freshman Brendan Downs currently stand 1-2 at the position on the post-spring practice depth chart. Asked if he is comfortable with the tight end outlook, Chaney grinned smugly.
"I don't know that comfort ever comes into play with me when it comes to personnel," he deadpanned. "I'd like to have 11 first-round draft picks playing for me. But I know those guys and I know what they can and can't do. That's what spring football forges, so I'm pretty comfortable with their skill level and what we can do with them."