04 August 2008
"It's not Coach Fulmer's fault. The man can only do so much," defensive tackle Walter Fisher said. "When we get to college, you leave your mom and parents at home and you become a man. It's on us. Only thing he can do is set standards. It's up to us to abide by them."There were no more discipline issues, and the offseason began to turn. Fulmer hired Dave Clawson, late of the Richmond Spiders to be his new offensive coordinator (after David Cutcliffe became the best Duke hire since Steve Spurrier). Clawson brought much of his offensive staff with him - that helped ease the gutting that occurred when Cutcliffe assembled his staff at Duke. So, the Vols closed the 2007 season well - despite a 41-17 drubbing at the hands of Alabama they won the SEC East and went on to lose a close SEC Title Game to eventual national champs LSU. They won six of the last 7 after the Bama loss, and wrapped up the season beating Wisconsin 21-17 in the Outback Bowl. Can they put it together again this year? a whole new scheme for the boys to learn:
"If a team runs a certain blitz from the field, if you flip your line and your one side is always to the field, you only have to rep that blitz once in practice," Clawson said. "You always talk about mismatches with offensive skill players. I like to apply that to the guys up front. If we're going to run a critical play at a critical time, I want to make sure I have the flexibility to move the offensive linemen where I want them."However, that shouldn't be a deal breaker for this talented and experienced crew. This will be the strength of this offense. An experienced line is exactly what you'd like when you're breaking in a new quarterback. With multi-year starter Erik Ainge gone, Johnathan Crompton must step up. He threw just 12 passes last year, and was less than 50% in starts against LSU and Arkansas as a freshman. Crompton did show flashes in those games, completing 4 TD passes. Crompton looked good enough early enough that Fulmer put any controversy to rest before the spring game, naming Crompton the #1. Crompton threw three TDs in the spring game - torching the defense for 266 yards. It's worth noting that the last time the Vols built around a shaky new QB with experience on the line and in the backfield, Tee Martin took over for Peyton Manning. Tennessee won the national title in 1998. No one thinks that Tennessee will repeat that performance in the stunningly top-heavy SEC East, but Fulmer can coach them up. The balance of the backfield looks better than QB. First team All-SEC selection Arian Foster looks to continue his assault of the Vol record books. He is only 684 yards behind Travis Henry and 13 TDs behind James Stewarton the Tennessee All-Time charts. He will get the bulk of the carries in an offense that almost certainly will feature a fullback once more. Behind Foster, Montario Hardesty will try to keep healthy, after being sidelined in 2005 with an ACL tear, in 2007 with "high ankle sprains" and again this spring with a stress fracture brought on by pushing too hard to recover. Hardesty will be pushed by sophomore Lennon Creer who was impressive in limited action last year. The weapons at wide receiver are impressive. Sophomore Gerald Jones garners most of the headlines as a featured QB in the "G-Gun". He rushed for scores in each of the Vols' final two games. Lost in the shuffle is the SEC's leading receiver in 2007 (in terms of yards). Lucas Taylor had an even 1000 yards on 73 catches last season. Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe each added 56 catches last year and are back for more in 2008. Add that receiving corps to Jeff Cottam and Luke Stocker, both big targets at tight end, and Crompton should have plenty of good choices when dropping back to pass. If Brandon Warren is ever declared eligible, the Volunteers will have an especially impressive TE rotation. Warren was freshman All-America at Florida State before transferring back to Knoxville to care for his ailing mother. Defense The defense returns seven starters from what was the worst scoring defense in Tennessee history. The big question mark this year is the defensive front seven. However, there's no question about first team All-SEC linebacker Rico McCoy. McCoy recorded 106 tackles a season ago, and is improved in coverage. You do not want to be hit by Rico McCoy. Gerald Williams is finally cleared to play, he could be huge. Last season he led the City College of San Francisco defensively with 146 tackles and 6 fumbles forced on their way to a championship. He's technically listed at linebacker, but conventional wisdom has him at end, where he's larger than anyone else on the depth chart. Depth in that front seven is a serious concern. There's not much beyond the starting crew. The secondary, however, is expected to be the most improved unit on this side of the ball. Eric Berry is a an All-SEC first team selection from his strong safety spot. Demetrice Morely sat out last year because of academic reasons and is back in his 2006 starting role. At the corners, five different Volunteers started last year. Each of those starters is back. The experience they gained in last year's campaign will ensure that this is a much improved position. A quick note about oft-arrested punter Britton Colquitt. He'll start the season serving a five game suspension for his myriad crimes. Biggest Games The Vols will unveil their new offense against Rick Neuheisel's new UCLA offense in Los Angeles. UCLA is not to be mistaken for a great team, but they are not to be overlooked. If the Vols drop that game, that could start a slide that would leave them 2-4 (0-3 in the conference) heading into a homestand with Mississippi State and Alabama. They must beat UCLA. The schedule turns brutal before softening down the home stretch. The last four Vol games should be laughers - at South Carolina, Wyoming in Neyland, at Vanderbilt and wrapping with Kentucky at home. Prediction: 9-3 (5-3) The Vols should have enough to get past UCLA. They'll drop from the polls mid-season (after a rough stretch with the SEC East) and then make it back into the top 15 by the time the season wraps. Another New Year in Tampa with the Bloomin' Onion Bowl awaits.
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