UT Looking to Get Tougher In 2006

A report from SEC Media Days features the Big Orange from UT.

Hoover, Ala.--For Tennessee head football coach Phillip Fulmer and his star senior defensive tackle Justin Harrell it was a strange holiday season.

Both are accustomed to spending the holidays preparing for and playing in a bowl game, but after a totally unexpected 5-6 season the Vols will be trying to prove what happened in 2005 was a fluke.

"It was a very, very frustrating year," says Fulmer, who is the dean of the SEC head football coaches.

Joining his head coach at SEC Media Days, Harrell agrees and says, "It's not normal for a Tennessee football team not to be playing in a bowl game. It was an odd holiday season for me."

Fulmer notes it has been 18 years since the Volunteers were left out of the bowl scene. "In 1988 when we didn't go, we won the championship in '89 and '90. Christmas time, you know, was really different. Christmas Eve was fine. We're always with our family and everything. Christmas Day was...it was good Christmas morning. Usually that afternoon we're leaving or packing to leave or whatever.

"My wife said, ‘You got to get the heck out of this house. You're driving us crazy.' It was that kind of December at least. We got through recruiting. Once we got into winter workouts, then spring practice, had our staff completely in place, it's just been really getting better since. Seeing the attitude of our kids, not having any off the field distractions, being very focused as a staff and as a team on what our challenges are, being around our kids has been a real, real positive lift for me."

Justin Harrell is an All-SEC candidate on the defensive front.

Because of the disappointing season, there has been speculation that Fulmer could be on the hot seat in Knoxville if the Vols struggle again this fall. The senior defensive tackle says he and his teammates don't even have that on their radar.

"We are thinking about winning the SEC Championship," he says. "We aren't worried about anything else."

Harrell contends the Vols have the talent to challenge for a championship and get back into the bowl scene. "Last season was just one of those years when the breaks went against us," he says. "It wasn't just the offense having problems. Football is a team game and we had days when the defense didn't play as well at it should. We have been working hard in the offseason. We have had a very positive summer. This team is looking forward to starting two-a-days."

One of themes in the offseason for Harrell and the rest of the Volunteers is getting tougher. The head coach says he sees progress in that area.

"We went into spring practice with a definite plan," Fulmer says. "Fortunately we came through it. We lost only one kid in spring practice to a shoulder injury that will affect this year.

"We had 737 scrimmage snaps during the course of spring practice," Fulmer notes. "We are a young football team that needed to work like heck to get better. Really the only way to do that is to go 11 on 11. I think we established ourselves to a degree as a tougher football team than we were at any point last year. That part is encouraging."

UT Notes:

*Fulmer says that senior offensive tackle Arron Sears, the brother of Auburn linebacker Kevin Sears, has as much talent as any offensive lineman he has coached at UT. Fulmer notes he hopes he steps up as a leader this season with his performances in practices and in games.

*The return of David Cutcliffe to coach the quarterbacks is a big plus for the Vols, the head coach says. Fulmer and Cutcliffe coached on the same staff for 17 years before Cutcliffe left to become head coach at Ole Miss.

*With the Vols facing a tough opener vs. Cal, Fulmer says the focus in summer voluntary workouts has been very good on his team.

*Fulmer notes that his big challenge is to get the offense playing at the same level as the defense. He says a major positive is that QB Erik Ainge looked more comfortable running the offense in the spring and has developed into a team leader in the offseason program.


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