The Volunteers instead are wondering how they can do better.
Tennessee trounced Austin Peay 45-0 last week by rushing for 315 yards, its highest single-game total since a 332-yard performance in a 2010 season-opening blowout of Tennessee-Martin. The Vols averaged 6.1 yards per carry and had a 47-yard touchdown run from Rajion Neal. Tennessee coach Butch Jones still wasn’t satisfied.
“I thought we left a lot of yards out there,” Jones said.
Jones’ players agree with that assessment as they prepare for Saturday’s game with Western Kentucky. Neal rushed for 141 yards against Austin Peay despite sitting out the entire second half, yet he saw room for improvement.
“It’s nothing that we need to brag about or run around here feeling like we reinvented the wheel,” Neal said. “After watching the film, you could definitely see what he was talking about.”
Establishing an effective rushing attack may be even more important than usual this week. It would take the pressure off a passing game missing wide receiver Devrin Young, out four to six weeks after breaking a hand in Tuesday’s practice. It also would keep Western Kentucky’s offense off the field.
Western Kentucky scored three touchdowns on its first four possessions while beating Kentucky 35-26 last week, but the Hilltoppers gave up 216 rushing yards and yielded 6.8 yards per carry. Kentucky broke off long runs of 50, 49 and 33 yards.
Tennessee could cause Western Kentucky’s defense even more problems. Tennessee’s offensive line features four returning starters. Neal and running back Marlin Lane combined to rush for 1,366 yards last season.
“They’re a big, physical offensive front,” Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino said. “Rajion Neal’s a guy I’ve known since (he was in) high school who’s a very, very good runner, has really good instincts and good vision.”
The Vols’ rushing attack could be getting some reinforcements.
Linebacker A.J. Johnson rushed for a team-high six touchdowns on just 12 carries last year while taking direct snaps out of Tennessee’s “Beast” package under former coach Derek Dooley. Although he liked to remind the new coaching staff that he could carry the ball, Johnson had been concentrating exclusively on defense since Jones’ arrival. That changed this week, as Jones said he used both Johnson and linebacker Curt Maggitt on offense in practice.
Johnson “finally got his wish a little bit,” Jones said.
That could add a wrinkle to a goal-line offense that still needs work. Tennessee had first-and-goal from the 2 in the second quarter against Austin Peay when Neal was stopped for a loss of a yard and no gain on consecutive plays. The Vols reached the end zone only after Justin Worley threw a 3-yard pass to Brendan Downs on third-and-goal.
Tennessee also sees other areas in which it can improve its running game.
Offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James said some 6-yard runs could have turned into 20-yard gains if the offense had done a better job of finishing. Although Tennessee’s only fumble Saturday came midway through the fourth quarter from reserve Alden Hill, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian noticed other instances in which running backs carried the ball away from their bodies.
Jones simply wants to see a better overall approach.
“I thought there were too many times that we bounced things to the sidelines,” Jones said. “And I think the other thing is a 4-yard run is good. A lot of times I think we were bouncing plays looking for the big play, and instead we should be looking for 4 yards first and then looking to make somebody miss. There was too much spinning and too much lateral” running.
Maggitt back at full speed
After tearing his ACL last season against Missouri, Curt Maggitt has returned stronger than ever this season for the Vols, and in just about eight months.
Though he didn’t take part in spring football, he was out there every day taking reps alongside other injured players and making sure he knew the playbook so once he was cleared, he could get back to what he does best.
Through fall camp, Maggitt was practicing at about half speed, but has returned to normal this week in practice.
His team couldn’t be any happier.
“Curt brings a different type of energy,” said linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen. “He went in yesterday and got his first real contact and actually kind of surprised everybody, taking on some linemen. The kids on our team really respect Curt; they have a love and passion for each other when he is out there.”
Maggitt’s impact is not just in his energy. The 6’3”, 239 pound linebacker is also a physical presence on the gridiron.
“He is big and strong,” said Thigpen. “He has a refined look. He has that SEC body look, probably one of the best bodies I have seen. He is a great looking kid. He can run and he is strong. He is also a smart kid. The sky is the limit for Curt. It all depends on how fast he comes back from the surgery he had last season.”
Thigpen and the coaching staff are in no hurry to rush Maggitt back, and are letting him return to full speed at his own pace.
For Maggitt that pace is fast.
“The more confident he can get the better he will feel about it,” said Thigpen. “He is a kid that has a great attitude and everyone loves him being back out on the football field. I know he is anxious but we have to be smart in the small process and not rush him out there.”
“He goes out there when he feels like he can go out there and make an impact,” continued Thigpen. “I tell him, `whenever you feel like going just tap the guy out, you know exactly where you are supposed to be, go out there and get reps. When you feel like you can go then go.’ He is the one that knows, he is the one that has to get his confidence in his playing.”