“Without a doubt,” Tennessee guard Vladimir Richard said recently.
And, without a doubt, he believes the 2009 Vols have the mental toughness to make their ground game a success.
“I think that our confidence is really up there,” he said. “We feel like whoever we line up against, we're going to go and run the ball because we have the people to do it. We're physical enough and we know our assignments.”
Knowing assignments is a good start. Tennessee forgot that step last fall, however. Between new pass protection schemes, new terminology, new run schemes and flip-flopping the guards and tackles, Vol offensive linemen were in a fog even on the sunniest of Saturday afternoons.
“This spring it was just like 'Forget all the thinking. Just go out there and play. Go out there and have fun.' That's the main thing we were doing – just coming off the ball fast,” Richard said.
And coming off the ball fast can overcome a lot of shortcomings.
“Whether you went the right way or the wrong way, just go fast. That was the bottom line,” Richard said. “We made our calls like we were supposed to, then we were ready to go.”
Because the offensive linemen are learning new blocking schemes for the second year in a row, there were some growing pains in the early stages of spring practice. As a result, the blockers were tentative at times. Offensive coordinator/line coach Jim Chaney anticipated this and cut the linemen some slack.
“When you're coming into a new system, you tend to think a lot,” Richard said. “That puts you in a little bind because you want to make the right block; you want to do things right. But if you mess up Coach always says, 'Don't worry about it. Just go out there and, whatever you do, just play fast.'”
If a Vol blocker takes a wrong step, Chaney at least wants him to take that step at full speed. After overlooking these mis-steps early in spring practice, however, the coordinator grew a little stricter as spring practice progressed. He'll be stricter still when preseason drills begin in August.
Richard summed it up this way:
“You're coming to a place where you're thinking, 'If I play fast and mess up, I'm still playing fast.' But you still want to make that right block because if you're not doing things right, you're not going to play. You just have to know you're able to play fast AND make the right reads.
“That just comes with time and practice.”