Forget having a two-tailback offense. In a rather systematic pounding of hapless UAB Saturday inside Neyland Stadium, Tennessee showcased it has the ability and depth to extend its tailback rotation beyond Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty.
Sophomore Lennon Creer and true freshman Tauren Poole combined for 136 yards on just 17 carries as the Vols routed the Blazers, 35-3. The benefits were both tangible and intangible for Tennessee, which began a stretch of nine consecutive games with Saturday's win.
"It was huge. We've got (nine) straight weeks, and running back takes a toll," said first-year tailbacks coach Stan Drayton. "I'm very, very fortunate to have four guys to be able to spread some of those hits out. If I can continue to do that, in a respectful rotation, we'll have four backs at the end of the year really changing the pace on people that a lot of people can't say they can do that.
"We're fortunate to have four backs and I'm trying to keep them healthy throughout the course of the year."
Neither fatigue nor injury seemed a concern against the Blazers; Vols ballcarriers, particularly in the second half, oftentimes ran through gaping holes and were several yards downfield before touched. Foster tallied his 11th career 100-yard game with 102 yards on just a dozen carries. Hardesty added the third of Tennessee's three rushing touchdowns -- and his third in two games on just 19 total carries. In sum, the Vols gashed UAB for 266 rushing yards on 41 attempts, a 6.5-yard-per-carry average.
"We are extremely lucky that we have four quality tailbacks. I don't believe we're going to be able to run the ball like this every week, but we're going to run the football," said first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, who was praised by players for some key halftime adjustments and who responded with 26 second-half running calls. "And if you're going to do that and you're going to run it with your tailback, you need to be able to have some depth there. Really, Lennon had a great week of practice and after the UCLA game, it would have been easy for him to be discouraged and I really thought he had a great week of practice, and I could just tell mentally that he was ready to go this game, and we were going to get him in.
"We tried to get him in in the first half, but we were backed up. But he was going to play regardless the score of the game."
After not gaining a touch in the Vols' opening loss at UCLA, Creer acknowledged an antsy sideline demeanor. But as soon as he cracked the rotation, the Tatum, Texas, product was off and running. Creer's first touch was a 5-yard carry.
On his second tote Creer broke right, abused a would-be UAB defender and easily outdistanced the defense 45 yards to paydirt.
"I was anxious at the beginning of the game, to see if I would get any playing time," Creer said. "They put me in and I just tried to make the best of it."
As Clawson noted, Creer had worked himself into the rotation with a determined rather than disheartened approach to the practice field in the days since the UCLA loss.
"There was improvement this week. He grew some more this week, he really did," Drayton said of Creer's attitude and progression. "He has been maturing, it's been an ongoing process for him, getting better. But this week he grew up some more and I'm really interested in seeing him continue that as we continue to progress this season. He had a great approach, a great demeanor about him.
"He was impatiently waiting a little bit in the first half, but when he got in there, he played with a great composure that a running back needs to have. I'm really excited to see after evaluating the film how far he's come, actually."
Tennessee's overall running game appeared yet again to have progressed significantly since last year, when the Vols were much more effective pass-blocking than establishing their tempo on the ground. In two games this season Tennessee has rushed 75 times for 443 yards -- almost exactly 6 yards per carry. Once coaches committed to dictating pace with the running game, the tailbacks couldn't wait to get their turn in the rotation.
"I think that is what we all want. We all want our number to be called," Hardesty said. "When coach said he wanted to lean on the running game our eyes lit up, and we wanted to take over the game."
The next step for the Vols' offense, Clawson said, is to turn that proficiency in the ground game into a boost for Tennessee's inconsistent passing attack, which hasn't yet shown an ability to beat defenses downfield.
"I think that came out of the UCLA game, that we ran the ball very effectively and we need to use our run game to present looks that we can throw it," said Clawson, whose first-half run to pass ratio was nearly even before the Vols' offense stalled in its two-minute drill. "The other thing we wanted to do is move the pocket, and we did that a lot today. I think it's just critical for us that we avoid third-and-longs. I think that's going to be a key for us all year."
Also emerging as a key is sophomore fullback Kevin Cooper, who had a strong debut in the opener Sept. 1 and continued to show progress against the Blazers.
"He is doing what I always thought he was capable of doing; I just didn't know when it would show up. Kevin Cooper is quietly turning into a grown man out there," Drayton said. "He had some mistakes out there today now that we are going to humble him with in a hurry. But as far as his demeanor and the contact he is playing with right now, it is right on track with where I thought he would be."
By asking for less, Clawson said he got more from junior quarterback Jonathan Crompton on Saturday. A junior from Waynesville, N.C., Crompton completed 19 of 31 passes for 240 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, his second and third of the season. Each of Crompton's interceptions has come on a third-and-long situation.
"By asking him to do less, I think he was more effective," Clawson said of his starting quarterback. "Certainly there are still some things in the five-step game that we have to do a lot better. We can't rely on screens and perimeter plays on third-and-8 and third-and-9. At some point we've got to protect and get the ball downfield. And we didn't do that today. Then we started calling some of those screens, and there's only so long you can get away with that."
While Crompton had a 48-yard connection to senior wideout Lucas Taylor, who finished with nine receptions for 132 yards, it was backup Nick Stephens with the most effective downfield pass. Stephens hit tight end Brandon Warren on a seam route across the middle of the field for a 42-yard gain from the shadow of the Vols' own end zone.
"Better, but it's also relative to who we played," Clawson said of his offensive assessment. "We're certainly very aware that it's got to get better for next week. I don't know if, I don't believe that this week's performance is going to get it done in a week.
"We play a great defense next week and one of the best teams in the country, and we're going to really have to make a lot of progress to be ready for Florida."
Taylor's spot key
What Clawson saw possibly emerging between Crompton and Taylor was a key development for the Vols' offense, said UT's first-year coordinator.
"Lucas, he plays that 'X' position for us which has to be the magic man," Clawson said. "If they're going to get that safety in the box, Lucas is the guy that's going to get a lot of isolation coverage. We started running the ball and they put the safety in the box and it gave Lucas the opportunity to make some plays.
"I thought Lucas did a great job after the catch today, making the first guy miss and really taking 8-yard throws and making those good games for us."
Taylor rarely caught the ball beyond the first down sticks, but he repeatedly juked off defenders and broke tackles en route to his sixth career 100-yard game.
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