Tennessee coaches made it no secret last season they wanted more production from the running game.

Whether it was a first-year starter at tailback in Tauren Poole or an inexperienced, young offensive line that featured only one returning player with starting experience, the Volunteers’ ground attack finished last in the SEC in rushing offense a year ago, averaging only 109 rushing yards per game.

Still, Poole, now a senior, rushed for over 1,000 yards and returns along with four of the five starting offensive linemen.

“I’m never where I need to be,” Poole said. “I always have room for improvement and that’s every single day. Our motto for this football team is R.P.C.I: ‘Relentless Pursuit of Continuous Improvement.’ The idea behind that is every day you want to be better, you don’t stay the same, you either get better or you get worse. We, as a football team, and me, as a football player, always try to get better every day.”

With another year of experience, as well as more depth at both running back and on the offensive line, coaches and players are expecting better numbers from the running game to better complement the passing game.

Poole and the offensive line have a goal in mind for this season: get Poole 2,000 rushing yards.

Coach Derek Dooley views it a different way.

“I’ve never been one to put these number goals. That’s great if they have that, but I think it’s a dangerous way to go,” Dooley said. “I do think you have to be realistic but you always should be shooting for things. We have our goals, in that we know we want to win an SEC and a national championship. It’s good to have that, but your focus can’t be on getting 2,000 yards. Your focus has to be on what we have to do to get that goal. And as long as your focus is on the right stuff, I don’t think it matters what goal you have.”

If Poole doesn’t reach 2,000 yards, it will not necessarily mean he had a disappointing year. Last year, Poole shouldered much of the load at tailback. No other Vol had more than 46 carries or reached 200 rushing yards.

“I’ve always felt like that you need three really good runners,” Dooley said. “Everybody wants a Heisman back but you’d prefer to have two. I call them two ones and you roll them. Those two backs carry the load. That’s what we did when we won the national championship at LSU (in 2003). That’s what I look at a lot of teams now and a lot of teams in the NFL (do). It’s hard because here’s what you have to think about. There are a lot of plays in a game. In the fourth quarter, if you have to run the ball, you want your running back at his best. You can’t have him over there getting oxygen.”

Sophomore Rajion Neal was the team’s second leading rusher last season with 197 yards on the ground. Early in fall camp, Neal began working some at wide receiver in the slot, a move coaches made to utilize his speed in space more.

The impact freshman running backs Marlin Lane and Tom Smith made during fall camp helped allow coaches to experiment some with Neal.

“Marlin is a little more elusive kind of guy, change of direction,” Dooley said. “Tom is a little more of a ‘hammer-knocker.’ He’s a physical guy. He came from a Wing-T offense. They just teach you in the Wing-T to run straight and you don’t even look up. You just run. Whoever hits you, you just go. We have to teach him that if there’s a defender there, you’re allowed to do a little (juke) and get on the edge. He hasn’t learned that yet, but he hits and he pushes forward.

“I think they’re going to complement each other very well. I’m going to tell you what they both have: They’re tough. And that’s a starting point at running back.”

Heading into the season, the starting point for Poole is 2,000 rushing yards, but the senior looking to become just the second tailback in school history with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, is looking beyond just the stats.

“I’m trying to be the best leader I can be for this football team ’cause I’m the only senior (starter) on offense,” he said. “Definitely trying to lead those guys and just get ready to win some football games. Just let them know that I believe in them and that we can win together.”