The Search For Balance

Where have you gone, young Montario? A Vol Nation turns its lonely eyes from you.

Woo, woo, woo.

Pardon the loose Simon & Garfunkel reference. It just popped up on my iPod [yes, I listen to some dad music ... what of it?] as I was thinking about Tennessee's running game. It seemed an appropriate intro. Stay with me here, Rocky Top Talk readers, it's an odd brain I live with.

Even though we weren't very good two years ago, we did have Montario Hardesty, didn't we? We all saw the purpose with which he ran, like his hair was on fire, like there was an angry swarm of yellow jackets chasing him, like he had spent an entire career bottled up by injuries and behind Arian Foster and his only hope of getting to the NFL was to treat every down like it was fourth-and-goal for the Sugar Bowl.

The search continues for somebody who can run with the same passion. Until he's found, Tennessee will not be Tennessee again. Even if it is found, we still may not, but establishing some sort of consistent running game is essential to being truly successful offensively.

Before we get started, I must get this out in the open -- I love Tauren Poole. He's a good kid, a solid running back who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year and the type of program guy you like to have on your team. I'm a big fan.

But that doesn't mean he's a dynamic SEC running back. He's not. It also doesn't mean he has proven he can carry this offense on his shoulders. He hasn't. That's why Tennessee's running back situation is far from a strength and I'd go as far as to say a concern heading into the season.

The Vols need some running to be able to set up those Tyler Bray passes. That 6-foot-6 kid back there is still a kid, and he's still VERY raw. He's going to need to be able to turn and hand it off to a trustworthy sidekick when things aren't so orangy on the perimeter.

Listen, I love to watch a fearless Bray fling the ball downfield with reckless abandon. We've not had a quarterback who'd do that since Freshman Erik Ainge. Rick Clausen was incapable. Then, David Cutcliffe was so scared of Upperclassman Ainge that he rarely threw it more than 10 yards downfield. Jonathan Crompton had to have half the field shut down to ever be moderately successful. I don't want to talk about Nick Stephens. Matt Simms may have been able to throw the ball downfield; I guess we'll never know because he always got hit before we had the opportunity to witness "what might have been."

Yeah, Bray's gunslinger mentality has been a heartwarming sight. Except for when he flings it down field Every. Single. Time.

We may be able to get away with doing that and winning against Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. But when we head to The Swamp or Tuscaloosa, Bray is going to have to be able to work an intermediate passing game. More importantly, UT has to find a way to achieve a balance with the run game so some of those big-chunk opportunities will still be there when they're needed.

During Bray's five starts last year, the Vols only ran more than they passed against Vanderbilt (34 runs, 27 passes). Even during the winning streak that got a poor UT team to a bowl game, the Vols couldn't find any consistency in the running game. The highest net rushing total during that 4-1 stretch was 130 yards against Memphis. The only thing UT was able to do successfully at all down the stretch offensively last year was pass.

Here are the numbers so you can judge for yourself. Poole's first three games during that stretch were certainly respectable; but as you'll be able to tell, these games were a microcosm of the inconsistency that plagued UT all season:

  • Memphis [38 passes for 325 yards. 32 runs for 130 yards] Poole production 101 yards.
  • Ole Miss [35 passes for 323 yards. 26 runs for 118 yards] Poole production 107 yards.
  • Vanderbilt [27 passes for 232 yards. 34 runs for 128 yards] Poole production 99 yards.
  • Kentucky [38 passes for 354 yards. 26 runs for 76 yards] Poole production 59 yards.
  • North Carolina [45 passes for 312 yards. 29 runs for 27 yards] Poole production 40 yards.

The good thing about those run/pass numbers [for the most part ...] is they're not TOO far apart. I appears Jim Chaney and Dooley were trying to be balanced. It was "production" that was hindering balance much more than run/pass differential.

It also wasn't that Poole was necessarily bad last year. He wasn't. It was just that he wasn't consistent. He also left a lot of yards on the field and failed to break many big runs. Finally and most importantly, how many times last year was Tennessee able to bang for short yardage on third downs? [To be fair, early in the season, it was consistently third-and-long because Simms was putting the Vols in horrible down-and-distances...]

Poole had some great games and some awful games. His rushing totals through the 13 games went like this: 110 v. UTM; 162 v. Oregon; 23 v. Florida; 23 v. UAB; 109 v. LSU; 51 v. UGA; 117 v. Bama; 33 v. USCe; 101 v. Memphis; 107 v. Ole Miss; 99 v. VU; 59 v. UK; and 40 v. UNC. He was basically the only running back who showed any semblance of dependability last year, too.

This season, the Vols simply must find some consistency running the ball. If we are to compete against Florida, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas ... there has to be some balance. Bray cannot heave-and-hope like he did so much against the lean part of the schedule last year. We've got to find weapons to cut through the fat.

You're simply not going to have a 100-yard rusher every game in the rugged SEC. I get that. Even as good as Hardesty's final season was, he laid an egg against Alabama, Ole Miss and Virginia Tech. But then, we at least had Bryce Brown, who got some productive yards when Hardesty was struggling.

That's why UT has to hope it hit a home run with the commitments of Marlin Lane or Tom Smith. Thus far in camp, Lane looks like the cream of the class. Even so, he had six carries in the first scrimmage [probably way too small a sample set with which to concern ourselves.] UT must have multiple guys it can rely on when the tough sledding comes. Right now, the Vols have none.

Who will be the guy to provide the spark for this running game? Will there be a guy at all?

The bottom line is Poole is a fine player to be getting 15-20 touches in a lot of games. He can be the grind-it-out guy if our line is better and we're able to convert third-and-shorts. But we need a home run threat. We also need a back who is quick and powerful.

Lane seems to have all those attributes. Tom Smith should probably redshirt, but he may be a power guy for this offense down the road. Devrin Young could actually get some runs when he's healthy and be a change-of-pace guy. Perhaps the coaches like Lane enough that's why they're working Raijon Neal -- probably the fastest guy on the team -- more in the slot. I wouldn't rule out Neal getting carries, too.

Surely among those runners, there are some tough yards. Surely among them, there's a gamebreaking run or two. Surely among that much potential and talent, there's some consistency. Surely we'll find ways to be more complete this year offensively, and that will open things up downfield and in the intermediate passing game.

Regardless, it all starts with finding someone dependable carrying the football. Or multiple someones. That's the biggest key to getting to 8-9 wins this year and spinning the future ahead to now.

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