A cloud of dust goes up in smoke: whatever happened to the Tennessee running game?

Three yards and a cloud of dust. Pound the rock. This is Tennessee football. (Hat tip to Smitty for finding the video.)

Make that was Tennessee football. The Volunteers' rushing offense in 2006 ranked 10th in the SEC and 96th (!) in the nation, only adding to that uneasy feeling among Vol fans that Tennessee's identity as a rushing powerhouse has been slowly eroding over the past several seasons.

But is it actually true? Let's have a look:

Year
Rush Attempts
Rush Yards
Yards Per Rush
SEC Rank
National Rank
1998
517
2536
4.91
n/a
n/a
1999
459
2104
4.58
1
20
2000
439
1790
4.08
3
39
2001
453
1849
4.08
5
57
2002
517
1957
3.79
7
55
2003
463
1800
3.89
9
70
2004
520
2418
4.65
3
24
2005
399
1411
3.54
9
80

Uh, let's say yes. Now suppose I hand your dog's leash to Michael Vick (today's equivalent of holding a gun to your head) and force you to draw a single line somewhere on that chart to separate the data into two distinct groups, where would you put your line? Between 2001 and 2002, right?

So what happened in 2002? Here's a hint: El Diablo spurned the one who brung him and jumped to The League, suddenly thrusting Gator offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens into the market. Now as I've said at least once before, I admire coach Fulmer's CEO approach to coaching because the ability to lure and retain the right people in the right positions is vastly underrated. But I can't for the life of me figure out what he was thinking when he hired an offensive line coach from a passing school to coach at Tennessee. But Fulmer snatched Jimmy Ray up almost immediately and put him in charge of the Volunteer offensive line from 2002 through the Season of Which We Do Not Speak.

Now I acknowledge a little pre-post bias. It's become quite fashionable to lay the blame for Tennessee's recent running game woes at the feet of Jimmy Ray. I've done it. My co-workers have done it. And one particularly erudite and zealous Florida Gator fan has done it. But do the numbers really support that conclusion? I mean, look at 2004. We had a 4.65 yard per carry average that year, the best running season since the national championship. Ah, but because a single year can mislead, let's take a look at the averages:

Years
Rush Attempts
Rush Yards
Yards Per Rush
SEC Rank
National Rank
Average: 1998-2001
467
2070
4.41
3
39
Average: 2002-2005
475
1897
3.96
7
57

On average, our rush attempts pretty much remained constant, and at first glance, the rush yards and yards per rush for 1998-2001 appear only marginally better than those of 2002-2005. Every little bit counts in a game of inches, though, and the average SEC and National Rank bear that out. From 1998 to 2001, Tennessee averaged third-best in the SEC and in the top third nationally at rushing the ball. During the Jimmy Ray years, Tennessee was generally worse than most other SEC teams and was just about smack dab in the middle of the pack nationally. Woo.

It's not only the offensive (ooh,  a doubly descriptive term!) rushing numbers that suggest something bad happened in 2002. We also stopped promoting rush specialists to the NFL. From 1998 to 2001, Vol fans enjoyed the exploits of Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, and Travis Stephens running behind behemoths such as Chad Clifton, Cosey Coleman, Fred Weary, and Reggie Coleman, all of whom were drafted in NFL years 2000 to 2002, prior to Jimmy Ray's reign.

Player
Years at UT
Draft Round
Draft Selection

Draft Team

Jamal Lewis
1997-1999
1
5
Baltimore
Travis Henry
1997-2000
2
58
Buffalo
Travis Stephens
1997-2001
4
119
Tampa Bay
Chad Clifton
1996-1999
2
44
Green Bay
Cosey Coleman
1997-1999
2
51
Tampa Bay
Fred Weary
1998-1999
3
66
Houston
Reggie Coleman
1999-2001
6
192
Washington

Four offensive linemen and three running backs drafted in three years. All but Reggie Coleman and Travis Stephens, who played only one and two years respectively, are still playing on Sundays. Average draft selection? 76.

The following four years?

Player
Years at UT
Draft Round
Draft Selection

Draft Team

Cedric Houston
2001-2004
6
182
New York
Scott Wells
2000-2003
7
251
Green Bay
Arron Sears
2003-2006
2
35
New Orleans

Two offensive linemen, neither of which Stephens was solely responsible for, and one running back, who has already retired. Average selection? 156. Yes, Michael Munoz and Gerald Riggs both had good college careers, but neither of them were drafted.

So both production of rushing yards and promotion of players to the NFL suffered under Stephens. Does that mean he's a bad offensive line coach? No. His eight year stint with the Gators proves otherwise. It simply means that he is in fact a pass-protection specialist and therefore a poor fit for a team that finds its identity in running the ball.

Oh, and one more caveat: as I said earlier in this post, last year, our first post-Jimmy Ray year, we had our worst rushing offense in decades, so . . . ugh. The feeling, though, is that it takes some time to retrain these guys to run block and that this year could well be the year Tennessee rediscovers itself.

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