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Golesh: Tennessee running backs, offensive line ‘back to healthy’ ahead of Kentucky game

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Alabama Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

It took a couple of games to find a rhythm, but Tennessee fans have gotten a heavy dose of Josh Heupel’s face-paced, spread rushing attack so far this season. It was a misconception when Heupel was hired — that he just throws the football all over the field. It’s actually been the opposite.

Heupel uses tempo and spread concepts to his advantage, often times making his rushing attack pop. Tennessee ranks 13th in rushing offense so far this year, but they’re coming off of a rough outing against Alabama.

It was tough sledding against the Crimson Tide, and things were made tougher by a handful of key injuries. Right tackle Cade Mays wasn’t able to go, and quarterback Hendon Hooker was nursing a knee injury. Both Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans were banged up as well, as they have been since the early season.

The timing of this bye week couldn’t have been any better, finally giving Tennessee a breather to get some guys healthy.

“I feel like coming back off this bye week, we’ve got a full stable, back to healthy at running back,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said. “We’re back to healthy on the O-line. Feel like we’re going to have our best chance now down the stretch to run the football as long as we can obviously stay healthy.”

Tennessee now travels to Kentucky, where they’ll face the No. 18 Wildcats on a cold Saturday night. They’ll need that rushing attack coming back to full song, and part of that is getting Hendon Hooker back to 100 percent. Hooker left the Ole Miss game late, and was a game-time decision to play against Alabama. His injury pretty clearly affected the offensive calls against the Tide, along with some of his decision making.

How healthy is he heading into this one following a week off? That’s a big unknown for us outsiders. It’s also a big unknown to Kentucky, which would have a lot more to deal with defensively if that knee is anywhere close to 100 percent.

“He was banged up a little bit there for the last couple of weeks,” Golesh said. “You’d like to try to keep him upright. He is also an absolutely reckless runner in a lot of ways. I said it the last time I was up here, he’s about as tough of a kid as they come. He’s learning to be smart in how he runs the football. We are also trying to be really smart with how we run him, where the hits aren’t necessarily coming from the side and where he can see where it’s coming from, so there’s a little bit of creativity there in what goes into it.”

The injury to Hooker and Mays, plus a good Alabama front ultimately stopped the Tennessee offense two weeks ago. The Volunteers hung with Alabama for three quarters, but the depth caught up to them late.

Also, according to Golesh, a one-dimensional attack made things too easy on the Alabama defense.

“For us to be ultimately successful, you have to run the football,” Golesh said. “For us to be one-dimensional, I think it makes it really difficult, because you live and die with it and you go three-and-out really, really quickly if that’s all you’re doing as well. We can’t put our defense in those spots. I felt like a week ago we did that. In the fourth quarter, those guys had been out there for so long that you don’t give them a chance to chew up clock and at least let those guys get their legs back and their breath back.”

Tennessee goes from facing the 4th ranked rushing defense in Alabama, to the 23rd run defense in Kentucky. The Wildcats held Mississippi State to just 94 yards on 35 carries last weekend, but surrendered 344 yards through the air to Mike Leach’s offense.

After a week to heal up, what can a healthier Tennessee offense do on the ground? That might just end up being the key to a Tennessee win on Saturday night.