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Rocky Top Tennessee Magazine Excerpt: Can Jay Graham Fix The Run Game?

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July 19, 2012; Hoover, AL, USA;  Tennessee Volunteers offensive lineman Ja'waun James is one of the offensive linemen determined to help the Vols get their rushing game back to respectability.
July 19, 2012; Hoover, AL, USA; Tennessee Volunteers offensive lineman Ja'waun James is one of the offensive linemen determined to help the Vols get their rushing game back to respectability.

You don't just throw away your heritage.

Enjoy your season, pass-happy Tennessee Volunteers fans, because this is assuredly it. You don't have to be Mike Leach's pirate parrot to see how the Vols are going to be wildly successful -- if they are -- in 2012. With Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers and Cordarrelle Patterson on deck, I'd be a fool to sit here and tell you UT needs to attempt to pound the rock to the tune of 300 yards per game -- especially considering the historic ineptitude of the run game last year. The quickest route to respectability with this group of guys is flinging the ball around.

So, why am I harping on Tennessee focusing on a return to the running game?

As I said above, you don't just throw away your heritage.

Though we know it's not going to be a quick trip, we have to at least start our journey back from the wilderness this season. You don't just go from 116th in the nation in rush offense to snow-plowing through the toughest league in America. You just don't. But you have to start somewhere, and those new beginnings mean being able to rely on running the football again. Can Jim Chaney prove he knows what getting 4 yards on first down means to an offense? He hasn't yet, and that's a concern.

For anybody acting like Chaney is the Second Coming of Steve Spurrier [*coughchriscough*], think again. Our offense has been inconsistent and downright stagnant against anybody resembling quality since he got here. Chaney admittedly hits play-calling lulls, becomes too one-dimensional, and good teams -- heck, decent teams -- will devour you when that happens. A large portion of that has been talent [or lack thereof] and injuries, sure. But most of it I believe is UT's failure to establish any semblance of a run game.

Without a running game, there can be no balance. Without balance, there can be no offensive consistency. Its science. You don't need fancy charts to see that. Therefore, the Vols have GOT to take steps toward returning to their grass roots in 2012. And even though they can't afford to lean on the run this year, they need to go ahead and start sowing those seeds.

Listen: the Vols were built on running the football. When we could run, we won. Even during the Peyton Manning Years. And Tennessee is going to have to run the football to put away games -- this year and every year in the future.

We all want to win. With the easier schedule and with the weapons in the passing game at our disposal, passing is the safest route to do it this year -- especially with question marks at running back and on defense. But it isn't the sure-fire route for the future ... or even for the present.

This year, if UT wins, say, nine or 10 games, we'd all call it a success. But if they win those games with a bunch of players who won't be around next year, then where are we next year? That's why playmakers in the run game have to emerge now.

Who'd you rather be? Mike Leach's Texas Tech and Mike Gundy's Oklahoma State or Nick Saban's Alabama or Les Miles' LSU? That's an easy pick for me. Call it boring if you want, but teams that can control the game running the football win games and they win championships. Five of the last six national champions ranked in the nation's top 30 in rushing offense.

  • 2011's national champion Alabama Crimson Tide? 17th in the nation.
  • 2010's national champion Auburn Tigers? Fifth in the nation.
  • 2009's national champion Alabama Crimson Tide? Eighth in the nation.
  • 2008's national champion LSU Tigers? 39th in the nation.
  • 2007's national champion Florida Gators? 20th in the nation.
  • 2006's national champion LSU Tigers? 27th in the nation.

The last time we won a national championship in 1998, the Vols were 17th. You can be a good team throwing the football around like a bunch of sissy boys, but you can't be a good program doing it, not in the Southeastern Conference. Derek Dooley knows this. Heck, Chaney knows it. And both of their jobs depend on it.

The Vols can only be so lucky as to look like Arkansas of 2011 [and look what happened to them when they went up against real teams...] but even if they did, that will likely mean the departure of Bray, Hunter, Rogers, maybe even Patterson before next season. Then, UT's offensive strength will be a veteran offensive line and four running backs who've been through the battles as the Vols work along a young, fresh-but-talented receiving corps.

What happens then? Where do you lean? That, my orange-fan friends, is why running the football successfully is at least as important -- and in my opinion much more important -- than throwing it in the long run. Once all the glitz and glamor graduates, you've still got to grind out the yards.

Enter Jay Graham -- UT legend, running star, molder of talent, former coach of all-world SEC running back Marcus Lattimore. Think he'd come to Knoxville to watch an air show? Nope. Dooley brought him to Knoxville to resurrect a run game on which to build a program. Can he do it? Who are the candidates to be his instruments? We explore that in the magazine.

Below is a brief excerpt of the task at hand for Graham. It's not an easy or overnight fix, we know. So, thankfully, in the interim, we'll get to watch some terrific athletes showcase their all-world talents in a year that could transition us back to The Conversation in the SEC. But once we arrive back where we belong, it's essential that we crash the dance with the one who got us there in the first place -- a run game to be proud of.

They tiptoed around 2011 references like Tennessee running backs through the few holes opened by the offensive line during last year’s forgettable football season.

No matter how much the Volunteers’ offensive players and coaches want to forget the worst rushing season at UT since 1964, the numbers keep creeping up in stories and conversations, cementing themselves in the back of everybody’s mind.

Only 1,081 rushing yards in a 12-game season – the third-worst number listed in Tennessee’s media guide dating back to 1950. A ranking of 116th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. An average of 2.8 yards per carry and 90.1 yards per game. Eleven rushing touchdowns.

To put those historically horrific numbers into perspective: Forty-one running backs and three quarterbacks had more rushing yards last year than the Vols’ entire football team.

"It’s mentioned a lot, but we try not to let it down us, you know?" Vols sophomore tailback Marlin Lane told reporters this past spring. "We just keep going, keep going. We see it and hear it, but we just let the birds talk, and we’re going to up it this year."

Surely, it can’t get worse. Tennessee’s rushing total was last in the Southeastern Conference, more than 30 yards behind Kentucky, its closest competition. When all those poor numbers are piled in one paragraph, they’re embarrassing enough, but the UT coaches believe they all helped add up to the most important statistic of all – a 5–7 record and no bowl game.

Any time a school as decorated as Tennessee posts numbers like those, changes are expected, and those came in bulk this past offseason. Seven assistant coaches either left the Vols’ staff or were fired – including offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who departed Knoxville for Notre Dame. He was replaced by former North Carolina veteran offensive line coach Sam Pittman.

Perhaps the biggest addition to the staff was former South Carolina running backs coach and Tennessee rushing legend Jay Graham. During Derek Dooley’s first two years at UT, he didn’t employ a full-time running backs coach, using graduate assistant Chino Fontenette. But with the staff shake-up, Dooley wasted no time in convincing Graham to return home to try to resurrect a once-proud rushing attack he helped build.

Graham left Heisman hopeful Marcus Lattimore in his wake for the challenge of returning the Vols to prominence on the ground.

"Jay is not only one of the most accomplished running backs in Tennessee history, but he has also proven to be one of the top running backs coaches in the SEC," Dooley said upon Graham’s hiring. "Jay understands what it means to be a Vol, and we are thrilled to have him on our staff."

Graham received high praise from fellow coaches and players throughout the spring. His addition and the team’s commitment to focus on improving in the running game paid immediate dividends on the practice field, and UT ran for 194 yards in the spring finale. Every competitor for that starting running back spot had bright spots at times during the spring, even if they all lacked consistency.

"It seems like they are more focused," UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney told reporters in the spring. "I think either it is Jay – you have to give him some of the credit – but I think quite honestly as a group, as an offense, we ran the ball so poorly last year I think we are a tad bit embarrassed about what we got done so everyone has a pretty good workman’s attitude right now."

How will that attitude translate when it matters? Who -- out of Raijon Neal, Marlin Lane, Devrin Young, Davante Bourque, Alden Hill and Quenshaun Watson -- will emerge as the workhorse to help the Vols become respectable on the ground again? Have there been any offensive line changes that can move this along?

All of that is covered in the magazine. But I believe one thing is pertinent to all this: The centerpiece of the rebound from a forgettable 2011 season to this one is Graham. He already made his presence felt during the spring, but just how quickly can the UT legend fix a legendarily bad unit?

It may be the biggest offensive question of the season for the Vols.

Check out the Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 print edition ($19.99). You can also get a Kindle version ($9.99) or the ebook (a downloadable PDF) for $7.99.