KNOXVILLE – The offensive line has been an easy target for criticism over the past two years, especially when it comes to run blocking.
A unit comprised of mainly freshmen and sophomores in 2010 and 2011 struggled to create consistent holes in the run game. The results were at times embarrassing. The Vols finished key games against Florida and Georgia in 2011 with negative rushing yardage. In total, the Vols finished nearly last in the NCAA in rushing yards per game in 2011.
The unit slowly began to show progress at the beginning of 2012, and it had a breakthrough in Tennessee’s 51-44 loss at Georgia. The Vols ran for 193 yards against a talented Georgia defensive front.
“It’s a lot of things,” coach Derek Dooley said when asked why the unit is improving. “It’s size and talent – they’re talented guys. They have a lot of experience and chemistry as a unit, and just the physical maturity that you’ve seen over the last two years.”
Dooley sees the offensive line as a model for what he wants his entire team to look like. All were highly recruited, have good size and natural talent. It just took some time for the unit to develop. Tackle Ja’Wuan James, center James Stone and guard Zach Fulton are in their third year. Tackle Tiny Richardson is in his second, and guard Dallas Thomas is in his fifth season on campus.
“It’s really everything just kind of coming together, and really that’s your goal for every position,” Dooley said. “That’s a group that’s been kind of beat up over the last two years, they were beat up last year publically for our performance. It’s a really focused and committed group.”
The group doesn’t stop with the starting five, though. Sophomore guard Marcus Jackson and junior utility lineman Alex Bullard have been seeing approximately 20 snaps per game as well. Bullard has played mainly tackle, but he’s also been utilized as a blocking tight end at times, in addition he has experience at center and guard.
Jackson, a five-game starter in 2011, has developed a reputation as a run-blocking expert. His compact 6-foot-2, 310-pound frame makes him well suited to get push against the defensive line.
“He’s practicing well, he’s playing well, he’s playing with a lot of consistency right now and he’s got a lot of power," Dooley said. "He’s really playing physical football, and we’re playing seven linemen right now.”
Neal breaking more tackles: While the offensive line is getting the running game started, the improvement of running back Rajion Neal has been a big part of the progress on the ground as well.
“You can’t have a good running game with a back not running the ball well,” Dooley said. “I think the last couple of weeks he’s broken more tackles and had more yards after contact than he did the first few games, so that’s definitely a part of it.”
Neal has solidified the running back position with back-to-back impressive performances against Akron and Georgia. After rushing for a total of 199 yards on 58 carries through three games, Neal had 255 yards on the ground on 45 carries in the last two contests. His yards-per-carry average has gone from 3.4 yards in the first three contests to 5.7 yards in the last two.
Maggitt limited by toe, inexperience: Sophomore linebacker Curt Maggitt has been playing through a painful turf toe injury, but Dooley said that’s not the only challenge he faces this season.
Maggitt has been relatively quiet with 11 tackles and one sack in the four games he’s played. He had a forced fumble against Georgia on Saturday, but only totaled one solo tackle and two assists against the Bulldogs.
“The toe limits him, but that’s not really the reason,” Dooley said. “I think Curt’s biggest issue is he just hasn’t played a lot. It’s a new position for him – he’s playing that Sam linebacker, on the line – so all the play recognition. You’ll see him early in the game screw up, and they’ll run the same play later and he’ll play it perfectly.”
Maggitt played a more traditional outside linebacker role in 2011, but he is playing closer to the line as part of the Vols’ transition to the 3-4 defense. He also missed all of spring practice with a shoulder injury.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.