KNOXVILLE – There will always be several areas that need improvement coming off a 5-7 season.
For Tennessee, a program that has prided itself in the past on running the football, no issue has a more pressing need to be fixed than the dismal running attack of 2011 that landed the Vols among the nation’s worst rushing offenses.
“Obviously we're going to have to find a way to run the football a lot better than we did last year,” coach Derek Dooley said in his pre-spring press conference. “That's going to be a big emphasis this spring. We're thin at wide receiver anyway, so it's a good excuse to go out there and hammer it every day to try to figure out how we're going to run the ball."
Though the opening two sessions of spring practice have mainly consisted of walk-through drills and teaching basic technique, some clues have been given on how Dooley and the Vols plan to solve on the problem.
The most noticeable move has been a shake up on the offensive line. Dallas Thomas has been taking reps at left guard despite his 25 career starts at left tackle.
That swap allows rising sophomore Antonio ‘Tiny’ Richardson a shot at left tackle. Richardson was used primarily as a blocker on special teams as a freshman in 2011. He was continually hampered by a lingering shoulder injury. Richardson hopes all the time he spent watching last season will pay dividends as he gets his first shot to contribute offensively in 2012.
“It feels really good because last year I didn't get to play as much,” Richardson said of his new spot at left tackle. “Physically I feel great. Last year was just all mental for me — I learned a lot. Now that I know what I'm doing, I'm going to play fast.”
Thomas offered no resistance when coaches approached him about the possibility of the position switch. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound rising redshirt senior has developed a team-first mentality while playing for three different coaches in his UT career.
“Whatever the team needs, I’m the guy to do it,” Thomas said. “If they need me to go play defense, I’d do it. It’s just about doing what the team needs.”
The switch on the left side of the line isn’t the only movement likely to occur on the offensive line. Rising junior James Stone has worked some at right guard after playing both left guard and center in 2011.
Rising sophomore Kyler Kerbyson has seen looks at center, guard and tackle while rising sophomore Alan Posey has flipped around the line as well.
Dooley said all the movement on the line is something they are doing to maximize the talent they have on the offensive front.
“It's really trying to find the best five linemen and then figuring out where to fit them,” he said. “The only way to do that is to get them in there, so we're doing a lot of different combinations.”
Rising sophomore Marlin Lane, the team’s leading returning rusher from 2011 with 280 yards, knows it’s not just the linemen that need a fresh start in the run game.
Lane had to battle through a lingering knee injury in 2011 as he tried to make his mark in the backfield. He is hoping more opportunities and a healthier body will help him be a more effective runner in 2012.
“(My knee is) 100 percent, I’m feeling better than I felt,” Lane said. “I feel a whole lot quicker and I feel a lot more range of motion and I’m good to go. I know I could’ve done better last year. I’m glad I got it out of the way though. It’s a clean slate.”
Though Lane’s recovery and the revamped offensive line may be helpful, there will be few conclusions until the pads go on Thursday.
“Physicality at every position,” was Dooley's answer to what he needs to see Thursday. “We got whipped too many times at the line of scrimmage last year. There's nothing more important than playing fast and physical — that can make up for a bad step or the wrong technique.”