KNOXVILLE – There were several alarming figures that showed the ineptitude of Tennessee’s 2011 rushing attack.
No. 116 was their final rushing rank in the country. No. 12 was how they finished in the SEC. A mere 90.1 was their final tally of rushing yards per game.
Despite those numbers, one of the biggest indictments made against the run game was a statement by coach Derek Dooley in October. Dooley said guard Marcus Jackson, a true freshman in 2011, was bench pressing as much as the offensive lineman that had already been on campus two or three years.
That lack of strength as a unit prevented the offensive line from getting the movement needed to create space in the running game.
“There were a lot of times when that was just what we were lacking,” guard James Stone said Wednesday. “Bottom line, that's where we had to make gains, and I think the whole offensive line made gains in the weight room.”
Last years’ season-ending starting five linemen—Dallas Thomas, Jackson, Alex Bullard, Zach Fulton and Ja’Wuan James—had a deceptively strong look to them. The five averaged out to be nearly 6-foot-4, 320 pounds per player.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said having the strength to move defensive linemen and create holes doesn’t happen because of a big frame. It comes from time and dedication.
“That (size) doesn't mean you're strong, that just means God gave you a nice stature,” he said. “That doesn't guarantee you hard work and strength in the weight room.”
Chaney says he has seen an improved work ethic combine with size and experience to form a stronger and more physical unit. He thinks the gains made off the field will translate into a more successful ground effort for the offense in 2012.
“Mac (strength coach Ron McKeefery) has done a good job in the weight room with those guys,” Chaney said. “They're all stronger now. Tiny (Antonio Richardson) is a big, strong kid. Marcus (Jackson) is very strong. I don't see that lack of strength right now being a hindrance to our success.”
Stone took it personally when Dooley said Jackson came to the team straight out of high school with more strength than players already in the program.
Jackson eventually usurped Stone’s spot in the starting lineup in 2011. Stone, however, has been working with the starters at right guard this spring while Jackson as worked with the second unit at right guard.
“You have to take it kind of personally—you've got to,” Stone said. “You've been here, you've been through a program, but you've got to give him credit because he was in a good high school program where he was able to build strength from an early age. You've just got to go in there and make up ground.”
Jackson downplayed Dooley’s past comments about his strength. He singled out rising senior Darin Gooch as the strongest offensive lineman in his opinion, but did add that he sees himself as “among the strongest in the group.”
“We had a great offseason,” Jackson said. “I’m seeing everybody get stronger. I think you’ll see improvement.”