Stan Drayton didn't get caught up in the numbers -- or relative lack thereof -- when Tennessee's top tailbacks generated a scant 45 rushing yards in last Saturday's opening scrimmage.
Instead, the Volunteers' first-year running backs coach gleaned all he needed to know in his group's response to their first intrasquad exhibition.
"I learned that they love to play this game. They're very coachable," said Drayton, who had successful stints at both Florida and Mississippi State before coming to Tennessee in January. "We came out a day after that scrimmage and worked on some of our weak spots and some things we need to correct from a schematics standpoint. They come out here and get it right and don't make the same mistake twice.
"If we keep that going, we're going to be a really special unit, and I really believe that."
Drayton hasn't seen anything that leads him to believe the Vols won't be an effective ground team. Though Arian Foster was held out of a handful of practices before he returned in full pads Wednesday morning, Drayton lauded the group's approach to becoming more complete backs in the adaptive offense of first-year coordinator Dave Clawson and behind an offensive line that returns all five starters.
"These guys are working their butts off," Drayton said. "They're getting better every single day. We made a huge improvement in our pass protection technique. I already know what they can do with the football in their hands. It's when the football is not in their hands. What kind of pass protector are you? What kind of blocker are you? Those are the things that we've really made a huge improvement on these last couple of days in particular. The demeanor and their approach has been phenomenal, and they're working their butts off to try to get better when the ball's not in in their hands."
A no-nonsense, stern figure on the practice field, Drayton has tasked his unit to improve in all phases of the game. But Montario Hardesty said it wasn't hard to pick up Drayton's core beliefs for his tailbacks.
"Ball security and finishing runs and getting vertical," were Drayton's talking points moving toward Saturday night's scrimmage, Hardesty said. "I know it was a draw play where I got the ball and had a two-way go. I had a vertical cut, where I probably would have gotten 8 to 10 (yards), and had an outside cut. I took the outside cut and got hit by Eric (Berry) for like 3 or 4 yards. Just take the vertical cuts and let the game come to you and ball security.
"I put the ball on the ground, and I ain't done that too many times since I've been here. (Drayton) is the one in charge of that for the team, and he definitely wants the backs to uphold that."
Nothing draws Drayton's ire more than a loose ball -- something he adamantly stressed to the entire team during a recent practice. Drayton credited Hardesty's ability to improve after his fumble.
"I basically told him, and not just him but the whole entire team, if you're a person who puts the football on the ground, that you don't play," Drayton said. "No matter who you are. You tell Montario that he's not going to play, you get a quick response. It's a quick fix. It's a technique there. You definitely want to show him the film and help him understand why the ball came out and was on the ground. He saw it and to his credit, every time the ball has been placed in his hands from that moment, he has been squeezing the hell out of it. He's that kind of player.
He's got my full confidence."
With Foster a proven, All-SEC commodity who should become UT's all-time rushing leader by midseason, competition has blossomed among Tennessee's tailbacks. Hardesty seized upon his opportunity with the first-team offense, and rookie Tauren Poole continued to emerge as a freshman who could find the field this fall.
"He's pushing the whole group, not just Lennon," Drayton said of the hard-charging Poole. "He's trying to find his role in this offense, and he's doing a lot of things right right now. A lot of guys see that. Like I said, with him, he's just young in a lot of ways."
Specifically, Drayton indicated the next step for Poole rested with the Toccoa, Ga., native's ability to develop into a more complete back without the ball.
"Pass protection, that takes some time for a young back, and he's got some technique errors that we need to make disappear," said Drayton, who previously coached with Clawson at Villanova. "Those older guys are ahead of him in that respect. Now, we run inside zone, and he's as good as all of them. We just can't run inside zone every single play. He's going to have to be able to do some other things really well, and that takes some time."
Yet Poole displayed a willingness to learn that Drayton found encouraging.
"Film room, out here on this practice field. He's a sharp kid, and he's got an unbelievable approach to this game," said the coach. "He's a student of the game."
What has been puzzling has been the fall camp of Creer, who appeared in 13 games last season as a true freshman. The 6-1, 210-pounder from Tatum, Texas, had been expected to challenge for significant work in the offense. With a dozen practices completed, Creer acknowledged he hasn't done enough.
"Not really," Creer said when asked if he was pleased with his work this month. "I know I can do a lot better, and I know I need to pick it up."
Like the rest of Tennessee's tailbacks, he'll get his chance in Saturday's scrimmage. And this time, everyone -- including Drayton -- expects more.
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