The running game hasn’t been what it used to be at Tennessee the last two seasons and there’s no strong indications it will be improved this fall. Certainly there are a lot of components that contribute to the success of a ground attack, not the least of which is offensive line play. There’s also lead blocking by the fullback, double teams by the tight end and good ball handling by the quarterback. When an offense strives for balance the ability of the wide receivers to demand double coverage is critical to leveling the defense’s numerical advantage.
Of course, there’s also the ability of a running back to find holes, hits openings, break tackles, cut back against the flow, avoid defenders and be durable. After seeing a series of such performers as Reggie Cobb, Chuck Webb, James Stewart, Charlie Garner, Jay Graham, Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry and Travis Stephens star at Tennessee between 1989 and 2001, no one could blame Vol fans for feeling UT’s rolling thunder ground game would continue to rumble.
Coach Phillip Fulmer addressed the problem at the end of the season and handed out an ample portion of blame to the running backs. There may have been an ulterior motive for such an assessment since the Vols have all their backs returning this fall and Fulmer could challenge these upper classmen to step up while at the same time hope to attract another top back or two into the mix.
Realistically, he knows that all the offensive pistons have to fire for the running game to get up to speed. Last year the Vols gained only 1602 net yards in 399 carries the lowest output since 1996 and the second lowest rushing total in the last 15 years. It’s the third lowest rushing total for Tennessee since 1969, a span of 34 years. The 399 rushing attempts in 13 games was the lowest average per contest by Tennessee since 1961.
The irony is that Tennessee’s current collection of running backs is the highest rated group of prospects the Vols have ever had at one position at one time. In the Class of 2001 alone the Vols landed the nation’s No. 2, No. 4 and No. 7 ranked backs in Jabari Davis, Derrick Tinsley and Cedric Houston. These trio was joined by Gerald Riggs in 2002 who was ranked the nation’s No. 3 running back (No. 2 by some services). All four of these backs ran track in high school and yet the Vols longest run of the entire 2003 season was a modest 50 yards.
So is this a case of running backs or recruiting analysts underachieving? Or is it simply a combination of all the aforementioned factors that must come together for a running attack to hum? No question it’s something no Vol fan would have ever conceived in the heady aftermath of signing UT signing the nationally acclaimed Class of 2001. By the way, that group was preceded by a 2000 class that included three of the nation’s top eight offensive linemen in Michael Munoz, Sean Young and Jason Respert.
Tennessee seniors-to-be Tinsley and Davis began a close friendship that still endures when they visited Tennessee for the 2000 Alabama game. The Georgia natives envisioned great times ahead during that initial meeting that takes on even more significance in light of UT’s troubles running the football.
“Actually it’s crazy because the game I went up there was the Alabama-Tennessee game,” Tinsley said during a November 2000 interview. “We said all of their guys are going to be gone next year and they’ll be needing running backs. He was telling me well ‘what if we come up here and I play fullback and you play tailback.’ We were talking about stuff like that. Being like (Mike) Alstott and (Warrick) Dunn at Tampa Bay. That one-two punch is something you always need whether you’re a quarterback or you’re two running backs.”
Three seasons removed from that statement, the Vols would settle for a one-punch wonder. And fans know you can’t always take a player’s rank to the bank.