KNOXVILLE - Tauren Poole joked last Saturday about what it might take to get Tennessee’s running game where it needs to be.
“For one, I can’t fall when I’ve got a touchdown,” Poole said with a smirk. “That was terrible on my part.”
Poole was referencing a play in the Vols’ 41-10 victory over Buffalo when a massive hole opened in front of him to reveal a clear, 20-yard path to the end zone. But instead of scoring his second rushing touchdown of the year, Poole slipped and fell.
Two days later, when Poole and the Vols met the media on Monday in advance of this week’s 7 p.m. kickoff against Georgia (TV: ESPN2), he wasn’t joking.
“The running game hasn’t been there all year in my opinion,” Poole said. “I have to get better at that. I haven’t really done anything this year that I was supposed to be doing.”
Poole has 318 yards through four games, with matching 101-yard outputs against Cincinnati and Buffalo. He had 98 yards in the season opener against Montana. But against Tennessee’s only Southeastern Conference foe so far, he had 18.
Georgia’s 3-4 defense has held its last three opponents to just 23 total points, and for the season the Bulldogs (3-2, 2-1 SEC) are holding opponents to 106 yards per game, which ranks fifth in the SEC.
Poole wants to prove he can run against quality SEC teams, and that the Vols aren’t a one-dimensional offense, even if they led the conference in pass efficiency and rank last in rushing yards per game.
“I’ve got to continue to get better in the run game,” said Poole, who is from Toccoa, Ga. “We’ve got to continue to get better as an offense in the running game to open up the pass for (quarterback) Tyler (Bray) and become a more balanced offense.”
Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said Poole has shown signs of improvement this season.
“I think he’s hard on himself,” Dooley said, noting that Poole needs to slow the game down in his mind. “Sometimes he gets a little jerky and antsy with high anxiety, and he sees things and stops and makes a cut and makes another cut. He needs to play a little more calm when he gets to the secondary.
“I remind him that he’s really a fast guy. When the ball breaks out, the best thing he can do is just run straight instead of making a lot of cuts. I think he’d see more production if he did that. He’s working on it.”
These last few weeks have been the perfect time to work on it, too.
Tennessee healed from a defeat at Florida in which it rushed for minus-9 yards with a bye week before last week’s romp against Buffalo.
Georgia, however, begins the Vols’ grueling stretch of October conference games that include the Bulldogs, No. 1 LSU, a trip to No. 2 Alabama, and a home date with defending SEC Eastern Division champs South Carolina.
But Poole and Dooley aren’t focused on October. They’re focused on Saturday.
“I’ve told the team this: We’re not playing October,” Dooley said. “I’ve heard more people say, ‘The next four games …’ or ‘October.’ I’m thinking to myself, we’re playing Georgia and that’s it. It doesn’t matter who we played last week or who we play next week. We’ve just got to go week to week. Is this another measuring stick of where we want to be? Of course it is. But I think every game in some way is.”
The Bulldogs thumped the Vols 41-14 last year in Athens, but Dooley doesn’t want payback to be a focus this week.
“I’ve never been one of those types of guys where you want revenge,” Dooley said. “We shouldn’t have to have last year as motivation for us to play well. We only get 12 days a year that we get measured on. I tell the team that all the time and there’s no excuse not to be ready as coaches, as players. So all I’m worried about is how much we’ve improved, especially going against a good football team? What are we going to look like compared to what we looked like two weeks ago?”
Two weeks ago, the Vols competed, but the run production struggled. Poole wants to continue his corrective measures, and he echoed Dooley’s narrowed scope.
“All the focus is on Georgia,” Poole said, noting that family ties to Georgia were not a motivating factor for better run production this weekend. “Saturday’s an important game because it’s the only game on the schedule.”
PICKING APART INTs
This time last year, junior defensive back Prentiss Waggner had already matched the school record by returning two interceptions for touchdowns after four games (he eventually broke it with his third against Ole Miss).
Fast forward to the 2011 Vols, who will enter their fifth game Saturday against Georgia with just one overall INT as a team. But that doesn’t mean they’re dejected.
“The interceptions are about being at the right space at the right time,” defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said. “I don’t think we have been in that situation a lot this year. I thought we defended the pass a little better against Buffalo. I think the more we emphasize it in practice and the guys understand when and where they need to be for the turnovers to start coming. I don’t think it is time to press the panic button.”
No unit or one thing is specifically to blame. It’s a collective effort from all facets of the defense.
“If there was a magic answer to that we would have addressed it already,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “Obviously it is pressuring the quarterback, it is being aggressive with the ball in the air, it is affecting the routes of the receivers, it is affecting the pass protection, it is a lot of things. It’s really not one answer.
“We practice turnovers all the time. We work on it daily. If you try to force the issue, sometimes guys will start pressing to make plays they shouldn’t and that’s how you get beat. Experience plays a big part in that, seeing the release of a wide receiver, seeing sprint outs, seeing things and being able to play where the game slows down definitely helps you take chances on plays sometimes.”
CHARLES A CONCERN
When the Georgia offense takes the field at Neyland Stadium this Saturday, it will present the Volunteer defense with a challenge it has yet to face this season in the form of an elite, pass-catching tight end in junior Orson Charles.
One of Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray’s favorite targets all of last year, Charles has seen his role increase even more in the passing game in 2011 as he ranks second on the squad with 16 receptions for 256 yards, including a team-best four touchdowns.
Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox knows the Vols will have their hands full trying to slow down the 6-3, 241-pound junior. It will be somewhat of a new challenge for the Big Orange this season as they have allowed just three catches to tight ends all season – two by Montana’s Greg Hardy and one by Adrien Robinson of Cincinnati.
“He can stretch you,” Wilcox said. “He is a very athletic guy and when he runs with the ball he looks like a wideout. Anytime you have a tight end that can stretch the field like that (the question) always comes up about how you are going to cover them, whether you have linebackers or safeties, that is always an issue. Tight ends that can stretch the field vertically always create problems. It will be a test for everybody, not only the linebackers, but the safeties, the corners, anybody who has to match up with him or their wideouts. They are athletic guys that can do something with the ball so it will be a good test for us all the way around.”
The challenge of covering Charles will likely fall on the shoulders of the Tennessee linebacking crew. As talented as the Tampa, Fla., native is, UT linebackers coach Peter Sirmon isn’t asking his charges to do anything different this Saturday.
“He has good tools,” Sirmon said. “He runs extremely well and they do a good job of finding ways to get him the ball. When the ball is designed to get to him, the quarterback does a good job of waiting for him and getting the ball to him. (Our linebackers) have a technique they have to perform. They have to be aware of what his strengths are, but we don’t change the techniques. We just have to do a better job of applying them and being aware of where he is on the field.”
Defensive backs coach Terry Joseph
(On the mentality of getting interceptions)
“We always say interceptions are accidents. We just need a little more accidents to happen. I think once you start over-emphasizing the guys start looking to try to get interceptions and then you start being susceptible to double moves. Over time they will come. I don’t think it something that I am going to go into the room and start screaming at them for not getting interceptions.”
(On Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray)
“If you just watch the first ten plays of last year’s game you can tell that once he gets out of the pocket he is very dangerous. For our underneath players it will be very important to keep an eye on him to see what we will do when he gets out of the pocket and reduce the space and make a good tackle. And the good thing against him is that hopefully you stand coverage late and have some success.”
(On using Brian Randolph at safety and Prentiss Waggner at corner)
I thought it worked out well. Brian is a guy that has been coming along ever since training camp started and Prentiss right now is more comfortable out there so it gives us some great options. (Marsalis) Teague and Prentiss being out at corner, we feel good about it. With Brian, he gives us a lot more versatility.”
Defensive line coach Lance Thompson
“This will be the first time all year that we will see a team that runs downhill. They have talent everywhere, a typical Georgia team. They have a really good freshman running back, a great tight end, their quarterback is playing at a high level and their offensive line is massive, so we have our work cut out for us. We will have to tackle well and like Coach Dooley said, we have to restrict space and not really give them a lot of room to operate. We have a great challenge this week.”
(On the defensive line rotation)
“We are thin and everyone knows we are thin. We are trying to rotate guys in there and as the competition heats up we are just going to have to have more bodies in there. It is a long season and we are not particularly big up front so we need to rest guys and not just have them get beat up. We do a good job rotating the kids and stuff and they did a nice job first time out there last weekend for us.
(On Georgia tailback Isaiah Crowell)
“The kid has a great vision and he balances out really well. He accelerates that is hard to tackle, if you can imagine a little bit of Lattimore – I have talked to some coaches in the league that have already played him and they say he is one of the best backs in the SEC in the last ten years. The kid is a special guy.”
Linebackers coach Peter Sirmon
(On defending against the play action)
“The linebackers have to have good eyes and have to have good discipline at what they are looking at because they do a nice job of selling the play fake. With the stress of (tight ends Orson Charles and Aron White) running vertically, it does put a lot of stress on you.”
(On A.J. Johnson playing some nickel)
“He just needs to continue to develop. He has good instincts and is a very good tackler. We just need to get him more reps in the nickel and just keep developing him. There aren’t many guys that have picked it up as quickly as he has.”
Special teams/tight ends coach Eric Russell
(On working with Devrin Young on ball security)
“The fine balance is making sure Devrin has his confidence, has his understanding, is not afraid to be aggressive and go get the ball, but at the same time understand how precious that thing is and we can’t do anything if we don’t have it and don’t maintain possession. You don’t want to slow him down, but hopefully it won’t turn into an issue. We’ll find out here starting Saturday.”
(On how the coverage units have combatted short kickoffs)
“I think they’ve been doing a good job with that. The (kickoffs) have been short. It’s about running with speed, finding where the ball is at and using your fundamentals and techniques. I don’t put it in our cover units head about the ball, Michael (Palardy) has to get that fixed, but they have to understand their job. Everyone talks about lanes and lanes are good for an initial landmark, but you have to defend the ball and the ball moves all over that field. What our kickoff team does understand is their leverage assignments and responsibilities, so when you don’t get a perfect kick they know how to adjust to those things. And then it is just running and playing fast.”