After months of disciplinary problems and a stunning 5-6 finish that left the
Vols out of the bowl picture for the first time since 1988, Fulmer made
significant changes in his coaching staff, took a serious and critical look at
the state of the program and decided it was time for some sweeping
Was it enough to put Tennessee on the right track entering the 2006
"I don't have a crystal ball to be able to tell you that," Fulmer said. "If I
start talking about last year and say it was just a few plays, you guys (the
media) kind of twist that sometimes. The truth of it is that if we make a few
plays, we've got a chance to win eight, nine or 10 ballgames last year."
Instead, the Vols entered the season ranked as high as third in the nation
and collapsed under the weight of poor discipline, inconsistency, an inadequate
offense and injuries.
By the time it was over, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders had resigned
under pressure and two other assistants had been fired, opening the door for
Fulmer to bring David Cutcliffe back as a offensive coordinator. Cutcliffe had
been a Tennessee assistant for 17 years and the Vols' offensive coordinator for
six years before he left to become the Ole Miss head coach in 1999.
Players and coached indicated Cutcliffe did a lot to restore the offense's sense of direction.
"The biggest thing this spring was learning how to work," Ainge said. "The thing Coach Cutcliffe brings to this offense is a tempo, a sense of urgency and just knowing how to practice, knowing what it really means to sweat and work hard and taking that into the summer workouts and making sure we're getting better."
Cutcliffe also worked to restore Ainge's confidence after it fell apart during a season marked by personal inconsistency and Fulmer's indecisiveness over the quarterback situation. Ainge spent the season in and out of the lineup, sharing the job and the blame with senior Rick Clausen, but now that Clausen is gone Ainge is Tennessee's only experienced quarterback.
Ainge made a lot of progress toward re-establishing himself as the starter in the spring and practiced and played with more focus and purpose.
"Confidence is earned," Cutcliffe said. "He went out and did what he had to do. He's getting pretty confident. He knows what he's doing and knows where he wants to go with the ball."
Along the way, Ainge also earned something he lost last year when many older teammates sided with Clausen.
"One of the biggest things to me about this spring was getting the confidence back in the whole team in me," Ainge said. "I think the football team has confidence in me right now, and I have confidence in myself. It's to the point now where if I see something that needs to be fixed or I need to say something, I can say what needs to be said.
"Last year, it was difficult with Rick and me both trying to say stuff. You can't really do that."
The Vols also spent more time focusing on the fundamentals of blocking, tackling and being more physical. Both Fulmer and Cutcliffe are determined to restore a running game that has often struggled in recent seasons.
"We lost our edge," Fulmer said.
Even the defense bore the brunt of Fulmer's critical eye in the spring as Tennessee attempted to get away from some of the assumptions it had been making as a program.
"We've got to be a better tackling football team because the defense gave up some plays at the end of some games last year that shouldn't have happened," Fulmer said. "We would have won them anyway.
"It wasn't just the offense. We have to play as a team, block and tackle, and find a way to make some of those plays we're talking about."
The Vols also have to find a way to win the games they lost last year and get back to contending for the SEC Eastern Division title.
"You can describe the spring as a success probably for one reason," Fulmer said, "and that is that our kids learned how to work again as hard as they're supposed to and at the tempo they're supposed to.
"We're doing everything we can to fight and scratch and work and take each little step we can to get back to where we want to be and that's the peak," he said. "The kids have had a good attitude thus far, but as we continue through the summer program, that will be one of the deciding factors of what kind of football team we will have."
One of the most difficult aspects of spring football for observers is trying to determine who won. If the offenses scores a lot of points in the spring game, that's wonderful for the offense, but what does it say for the defense? If the defense dominates the offense, does that mean the offense will struggle that fall?
Georgia fans have to be wondering what it all means after watching the defense dominate most of spring practice and the annual G-Day game. No area presents more of a concern than the quarterback position.
After five years of David Green and D.J. Shockley run the offense the Bulldogs started over in the spring with a mix of junior Joe Tereshinski, redshirt freshman Joe Cox and true freshman Matt Stafford, who singed in February, enrolled in school early and participated in spring practice.
Stafford is the biggest "name" of the three and the one Georgia fans most wanted to see and he got their attention immediately when he threw a 64-yard touchdown pass on his first snap at Sanford Stadium.
After that, however, Stafford looked like just another quarterback during a sloppy offensive day, completing 5 of 10 passes for 102 yards. Tereshinski, who started one game in 2005, completed only 2 of 7 passes with two interceptions and Cox struggled even more, throwing four interceptions.
"I don't think today was a good showing for the QBs as far as what we've been doing in the spring," Tereshinski said. "We've done a lot better, and we didn't really show it today."
Despite the lack of a clear-cut starter coming out of spring, Georgia coach Mark Richt put his best possible spin on the situation.
"I'm not too worried about it now," Richt said of the interceptions and mistakes. "I'd much rather have it happen today than in our first ballgame. It's a learning experience for everybody. That's why I like having it close to being like a real game."
If Georgia insiders had to bet, they'd probably bet on Tereshinski to start the season opener Sept. 2 against Western Kentucky. Then again, even the Georgia players aren't sure who will emerge as the eventual starter.
"I have no clue," senior defensive tackle Ray Gant told the Athens Banner-Herald, "but I hope they hurry up and figure it out."
Richard Scott is Birmingham based sports writer, author and featured columnist in Tiger Rag magazine. Reach him at RScottfree@aol.com.