After a 27-year winning streak against rival Kentucky was snapped last November, Tennessee was forced to improve in certain areas to have a chance to compete in the SEC in 2012.
Last season, Tennessee's running game ranked 116th out of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The Vols averaged 90.1 yards rushing per game in 2011, though the team ran the ball 392 times. Compared to the passing game, that is only eight less than the 400 pass attempts. The Vols tried to stay balanced, but averaging only 2.8 yards per carry, difficulties arose. That aspect of the offense was virtually nonexistent and leaves much needed improvement for the 2012 season.
During Tennessee's game against N.C. State on Friday, the Vols showed marked improvement in the running attack with 191 yards rushing. Tennessee proved they have big play potential in the running game, with two long runs by junior wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and sophomore tail back Marlin Lane.
"For the first opener, we showed a lot people we got the run game, but we still have a whole lot to improve on," Lane said.
Lane said the backs' competitive natures help each other improve and help the running game be a success.
"I feel whoever is in the game to start, that is who will be in the game the most, depending on how they perform," Lane said. "We stay in each other's ear. We aren't even down on each other, we keep each other up and go out there and do what we do."
During the offseason, Tennessee's defense made changes after defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's replacement of former D.C. Justin Wilcox. Sunseri immediately reworked the Vols defensive style, with amazing results. In light of last year's shocking lack of turnovers from the defense, Sunseri instituted a multiple defense with a 3-4 base, putting a huge emphasis on forcing turnovers. This emphasis led to four turnovers in the opener against N.C. State.
"It was a big emphasis," said junior defensive back Byron Moore. "Ever since the new defensive staff got here, they said it was going to be aggressive and attack the quarterback and try to get turnovers. We felt like we established that in the first game and we were proud of that."
Another defensive issue last season was missed tackles, and it became a focus for the defensive staff this offseason. The work on tackling in the off-season paid off in the season opener.
"I thought we tackled very well," head coach Derek Dooley said. "We had a lot of good space tackles where those guys could have made some plays. There were a couple of missed tackles on the shout across, one on the kickoff, but we've seen some significant improvement in our tackling."
As the Vols prepare for another game this weekend, the team continues to focus on areas that need to be improved.
"Most teams don't reach or never reach their dreams, and I think one of the main reasons is that they overestimate the event and underestimate the process," Dooley said. "That is going to be our biggest challenge this next week is not overestimating the event, not patting ourselves on the back and listening to everybody talking about how good we played and not remembering why we had success which is the process these guys have been going through the last eight months."