One thing that the Tennessee Vols football team put a strong emphasis on this off-season and wanted to key on heading into the 2012-13 college football season was getting the running game back to being a recognizable force in the SEC.
For that to happen though, the team realized that the offensive line would have to lead the way and the running backs need to be explosive and find the holes created by the big men up front.
The Vols put all questions aside as they took the field against N.C. State last Friday and beat down the Wolfpack 35-21 behind a fast paced explosive and balanced attack on offense.
In the season opening victory for third-year head coach Derek Dooley, the Big Orange averaged five yards per rush and totaled 191 yards on 38 carries, which blew out their average of 90.1 rushing yards per game from last season that ranked dead last in the SEC.
"I thought we did pretty well as a unit and we still have a few things that we have to clean up in the running game," said junior guard Zach Fulton who was named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week after grading out highest on the offensive line at 85 percent. "We need to get our fits back and get our technique down better this week."
While the running game was effective, it thrived off of 67 and 42 yard runs, and junior tailback Rajion Neal and sophomore Devrin Young combined for 24 carries for 51 yards and a score.
"We need to work on getting more movement on the defenders off the ball and dominating the line of scrimmage each and every play," he said.
While the starting offensive line has practically the same look as last season, it has one big edition in that of sophomore left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson who comes in as the team's biggest offensive lineman at 6-foot-6 and 332 pounds. While he was solid in his first start for the Vols, he realizes he has room for improvement, just as the unit as a whole does.
"I saw a lot of things I can improve on," Richardson said. "But for it being my first collegiate start I was really pleased. The off-season team building really helped us, and we know we have a long way to go and have to continue to improve."
However, there is a much larger reason the "big five" are separated up front from the level of performance they played last season when they struggled to create holes for the running game.
"The biggest difference in the line this year is the maturity and that we all have the playbook down to a tee," Fulton said. "There's no miscommunication at all."
The maturity that has come to the unit is a result of the combined 106 starts between Fulton, James, Thomas, Stone, and Richardson.
Not only can their experience be used as an advantage on the field but the unit, which has their own cutoff t-shirts labeled OLP for Offensive Line Pride, believes that they can use their size as an advantage too. The front five for the Vols average out at 6-foot-5 and 318 pounds.
However, the unit realizes that they have a long way to go and they haven't proven themselves yet as a dominant offensive line, especially since they have yet to start conference play.
"To get better each week they need to get in that film room and study the defenses more and the players and see what their tendencies are and what they like to do on certain downs and distances," senior guard and Outland Trophy Watch list nominee Dallas Thomas said. "Coach (Sam) Pittman is a real good coach and we've learned his new terminology and we've been putting it all together, and it's been clicking lately."
The team now has its focus set on Georgia State and they are determined to have greater success in the running game.
"We always try to get more rushing yards than we did the week before," Fulton said. "We are always trying to push to do better."
Nonetheless, the running game and offensive line for the Vols has themselves headed in the right direction and is excited for what's to come for the rest of the season.
"We have a lot of goals, but when it's all said and done we just want to be a dominant offensive line," Thomas said.