KNOXVILLE — It seems a little silly on the surface to suggest that a 41-10 loss to Alabama on Saturday was the best game Tennessee’s offensive line has played in a while.
But it’s true. At least that’s what the linemen, their coaches and their running back said this week.
“It feels like we’re starting to get there,” junior tailback Tauren Poole said. “The hard work has been there since the offseason, and it’s nice to see some results. We know we can be a whole lot better, but we’re starting to get there.”
Saturday’s blowout loss wasn’t the running game’s fault.
The Volunteers’ 159 rushing yards were the most Alabama had surrendered this season, and Poole’s 117 yards on just 14 carries made him the first individual to reach triple digits against the Crimson Tide in 41 games.
Excluding his 59-yard touchdown in the first quarter, Poole still would have had 58 yards on just 13 carries. That’s 4.5 yards per carry.
“I didn’t do it; my O-line did it,” Poole said. “All the credit goes to them. You could have driven a truck through some of those holes. I was so proud of those guys.”
Jarrod Shaw, a versatile senior whose three starts heading into the season were the line’s only three, was pleased to hear Poole’s praise.
“I think we were really into it, especially in the first half,” Shaw said. “The coaches challenged us to stay focused, and I felt like that’s what we did. We were out there communicating, guys were on guys, we weren’t having many missed assignments and we played hard.
“Hopefully we can build on that and keep going.”
That would please Poole, who said the line has come “a long ways” since spring practice despite overcoming several obstacles.
“It’s all about trust, and they want to know that people trust them,” Poole said. “I tell them all the time, ‘I trust you guys. Continue to work hard, and we’ll get better.’ As long as they believe, they’ll be fine.
“They’ve gained a lot of confidence in each other. They’re communicating well, and they’re playing really fast. They played fast against Bama, and they continue to play faster each game.”
It hasn’t always been that smooth, though. Far from it.
Coaches opened the season with a starting five they liked — sophomore left tackle Dallas Thomas, redshirt freshman left guard JerQuari Schofield, junior center Cody Pope, Shaw at right guard and true freshman right tackle Ja’Wuan James — but that group started crumbling in game two against Oregon.
Pope left the lineup against the Ducks with a concussion and stinger, and he’s missed the past five games. Schofield broke a bone in his foot in game 3 against Florida, and he’s missed the past four games.
The loss of Pope moved sophomore Darin Gooch — who played junior college ball last season — into the center position. True freshman James Stone filled in for Schofield for three games, with true freshman Zach Fulton becoming the sixth man. Thomas injured his ankle at LSU but fought through the pain at Georgia despite not practicing all week.
Fulton replaced Stone in the starting lineup against Alabama, with Shaw — who can also play tackle — sliding over to left guard.
Coach Derek Dooley said he’s generally been “proud” of the line, particularly the “young guys,” for learning on the fly.
“I’ll tell you, Zach Fulton played a phenomenal football game [against Alabama],” Dooley said. “He was one of our players of the week, him and Poole on offense. I mean really, he went out there and competed against some great football players, went toe-to-toe with them. Ja’Wuan, we all know he’s doing well.
“Those guys in time are going to be good football players.”
Schofield, another huge body with a bright future, said he’ll return to action Saturday at South Carolina and be about “90 percent” healthy.
“I’m excited to be back,” the 6-foot-6, 330-pounder said Tuesday night. “We’ve got a great group. The guys played great against Alabama, and I’m excited to get in there and go back to work with them.”
Dooley said the plan this week is to work in Schofield with Shaw at left guard, giving Stone plenty of practice time to start working behind Gooch at center — because it’s still unclear when Pope will return.
While most of the linemen weren’t notably giddy about snapping the Tide’s 100-yard streak, they conceded it was a confidence booster, particularly after miserable days like a 29-yard showing against Florida, a 42-yard game against UAB, a 96-yard performance at LSU and an abysmal 9-yard day at Georgia.
“They haven’t really said much about me having a 100-yard game,” Poole said. “I just think it’s about them playing their best football, and that’s what they continue to do, week in and week out — they’re getting better. As you can see, they’re growing. There’s a lot of young guys up front. The mental part of their game, you can just see they’re young — 18, 19 years old — but their confidence level has skyrocketed from the first game. Now it’s just all about building that confidence and getting better.
“We work together, and we work hard to just run the football as best as we can. It’s working now, but we’ve just got to continue to be better.”
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesrucker or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.