KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Injuries at running back and instability on the offensive line have Tennessee running out of answers for its stagnant ground attack.
The Volunteers' rushing woes were glaringly apparent last week as Tennessee staggered to a 14-3 victory over Conference USA program Charlotte . Charlotte limited Tennessee to just 20 yards on 26 carries and held the Vols scoreless after the first quarter.
"We didn't block very well," Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "We basically got whipped at the point of attack. We had some mental errors that we haven't been having for quite some time."
Tennessee (4-5, 1-4 SEC) now must try to solve its issues in the running game before its home game Saturday with No. 12 Kentucky (7-2, 5-2). Although Kentucky allowed 331 yards rushing in a 34-17 loss to No. 5 Georgia last week, the Wildcats rank eighth nationally in scoring defense and 33rd in run defense .
The struggles for Tennessee's running game actually began last year, when the Vols averaged 117.4 yards rushing per game and 3.41 yards per carry . The Vols hoped an improved offensive line featuring preseason all-SEC selection Trey Smith at tackle and Alabama graduate transfer Brandon Kennedy at center could boost the ground attack this year.
Kennedy played just one game before injuring his anterior cruciate ligament , knocking him out for the remainder of the season. Smith is out indefinitely after doctors found blood clots in his lungs, a recurrence of an issue that also prevented him from participating in spring practice .
Without Kennedy and Smith, Tennessee is searching for the right combination.
Tennessee opened the Charlotte game with a line that featured Marcus Tatum at left tackle, Jahmir Johnson at left guard, Ryan Johnson at center, Nathan Niehaus at right guard and Drew Richmond at right tackle. Late in the third quarter, Chance Hall stepped in at right guard with Niehaus moving to right tackle. K'Rojhn Calbert took over at left tackle down the stretch.
The Vols' single-game rushing total against Charlotte was their lowest output since being held to zero net yards rushing in a 34-3 loss to Mississippi in 2014 .
"We had too many mistakes Saturday, which went back to earlier in the year, guys blocking the wrong folks," Pruitt said. "It's hard to have success when you do that."
Pruitt also said last week that his running backs were "banged up" without going into specifics. Tennessee's leading rushers this season are Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler, but they combined for just six of the Vols' 26 carries last week.
Tennessee's health concerns in the backfield have led to some roster shuffling.
The Vols' leading rusher against Charlotte was freshman Jeremy Banks, who had switched from running back to linebacker two weeks ago before moving back to offense. Carlin Fils-aime moved from the secondary to running back last month.
When Banks started practicing with the running backs again last week, Pruitt said "we want to make sure that we've got enough running backs to finish the year."
Pruitt says he expects all his running backs to be available against Kentucky.
"I'd say the health of our running backs is probably like everybody else," Pruitt said. "It's November, and everybody has bumps and bruises. All of our guys will be ready to play."
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops remains wary of Tennessee's offense. Stoops complimented Tennessee's wide receivers and said they could indirectly help the Vols' rushing attack.
"Anytime you have the talent at wide receiver that they have, it always makes you conscious of those guys and not leaving your corners in one-on-one situations all day," Stoops said. "That could open up opportunities for some big plays in the run game.
"They've had some injuries on the offensive line that I'm sure have not helped them, but they're a talented and good football team that's getting better with every game."
NOTES: Pruitt said safety Trevon Flowers will probably be a "game-day decision." A broken collarbone caused Flowers to miss Tennessee's last four games. ... Safety Micah Abernathy has missed four games with an ankle injury. Pruitt said Abernathy will start practicing this week and that "we'll just see how it goes."
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AP Sports Writer Gary Graves in Lexington, Kentucky, contributed to this report.