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Tennessee seeks improvement from rushing attack

AP - Sports

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The loss of a 1,000-yard rusher and all five starters on last year's offensive line are creating plenty of obstacles for Tennessee in its attempt to establish a rushing attack.

In an otherwise impressive 38-7 season-opening victory over Utah State, Tennessee rushed for only 110 yards on 39 attempts. The Volunteers' longest run from scrimmage was 9 yards.

''We didn't rush like we wanted to,'' running back Marlin Lane said. ''We didn't get the runs that we wanted.''

Tennessee will try to boost that rushing attack Saturday against Arkansas State (1-0) while replacing starting left tackle Jacob Gilliam, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Utah State.

The Vols' early struggles running the ball shouldn't come as a surprise. Tennessee had to replace Rajion Neal, who rushed for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns last season in his final year of eligibility. Neal's absence leaves Lane and freshman Jalen Hurd running behind a line that has no returning starters.

''We obviously have room for improvement,'' center Mack Crowder said. ''It's not where we want to be, but that's almost expected for the first game, all of us playing together for the first time. We went back to the film and saw a bunch of things we're going to correct.''

Tennessee's coaches focus more on a statistic they term as ''running efficiency'' than the average gain per carry, a figure that could be skewed by one breakaway. They determine running efficiency as the percentage of runs that go at least 4 yards or convert a first down. If you throw out two sacks and a 5-yard loss that resulted from a wild snap, half of the Vols' 36 designed runs met that standard. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said Tennessee sets a goal of 58-60 percent efficiency.

''When you look at your run game, it is (about) all 11 individuals working together as one,'' head coach Butch Jones said. ''There were about eight incidents where we were running the football and we were one block away from a big play. A lot of times, it's your back-side cutoffs, your lineman not being on the proper defender. You have to be disciplined and stay with your pad level. It's not just the offensive line. Sometimes, it may be the tight end on a combination block. It could be the back not making the proper read or the quarterback keeping it. There were a lot of single breakdowns. We are working to get that corrected.''

Tennessee has reason to believe its running game will improve.

Lane has a career average of 4.9 yards per carry. Hurd was considered one of the nation's top running back prospects in his class. The line should get better as it gains experience. Utah State also has a history of silencing opposing rushing attacks, as the Aggies ranked eighth nationally in run defense in 2013 and 13th in 2012.

Arkansas State allowed 4.7 yards per rush last year but showed improvement in its season opener. Arkansas State beat Montana State 37-10 by limiting the Football Championship Subdivision program to 86 yards rushing on 44 carries.

''The best thing about all of it is when you saw tackles, you saw very few one-on-one tackles,'' Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson said. ''You saw a ton of swarm tackles and group tackles. ... They played extremely hard. We had guys flying around from the very first snap all the way to the last snap.''

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