Vols Look For Weapons of Vast Production

No one would confuse Coach Phillip Fulmer and his capable staff for UN inspector happy Hans Blix and his merry band of clueless cronies, but these diverse groups both spent the winter in search of a an elusive commodity.

Hans and his incompetent cohorts wandered through the wilderness of Iraq looking for the whereabouts of weapons of mass destruction, while Fulmer and his assistants scoured the United States seeking weapons of vast production.

Hans failed in his task and is out of a job. Fulmer succeeded in his quest, signing a trio of All-American receivers in Jason Swain, Brent Smith and Robert Meachem. He also signed a couple of All-American offensive linemen in Eric Young and Aaron Sears that are sure to surface as starters in the not-too-distant future, along with a couple of sleepers from west Tennessee in quarterback Bo Hardegree and tight end Brad Cottam.

In the process, Tennessee addressed areas of need that severely limited the 2002 team. With Donte Stallworth opting for early entry in the NFL Draft last year and Kelley Washington only playing in four of 13 games, Tennessee didn't have a go-to wide receiver to take pressure off tight end Jason Witten or quarterback Casey Clausen, who felt the heat every time he dropped back to pass.

Without benefit of a consistent air attack, Tennessee's ground game was also halted by defenses that crowded the line of scrimmage and dared the Vols to beat them through the air.

Stopping Tennessee on the ground is the key to beating the Vols during Coach Fulmer's reign. A former offensive lineman, Fulmer knows the importance of controlling the line of scrimmage. His preferred formula of success is to wear the defense down with the run, force the safeties to come up in run support and to stretch the secondary with speed on the flanks.

Essentially, it's a philosophy ripped right from the old Oakland Raider's play book formula that combined a power running game with a vertical passing game testing the defense's depth and breath. It provides for quick strike capability while also taking a physical toll on the front seven. Eventually, the defense wears down and the offense takes over. The D-line has little fuel left to pressure the passer and the secondary is left vulnerable against an offense that can strike underneath or over the top.

When hitting on all cylinders, it's an attack of shock and awe that can thrill crowds with its explosiveness or bury defenses with dominance along the line of scrimmage. When you bring the elements together in play action, it can exploit a defense at almost any point on the field.

Once the offense establishes a solid lead it can control the clock and move the sticks, leaving the opposition with precious little time or field position to mount a viable comeback.

It's an approach that allows UT to remain in any game through its ability to overcome deficits or parlay a possession into a fourth-quarter victory by driving the ball on the ground and simultaneously burning the clock. Two good examples: Tennessee's Miracle at South Bend 35-34 comeback victory over Notre Dame in 1991, when the Vols overcame a four-touchdown deficit in the House that Knute built and Touchdown Jesus surveys. Everyone remembers "The Fumble" that saved UT's 1998 championship season against Arkansas, but the victory was seized on the ground with Travis Henry covering 43 yards in five carries as the clock clicked down the final 90 seconds of play.

On the flip side, Tennessee's defense seeks to stop the run first, force the quarterback into quick decisions with a variety of blitz packages and prevent the offense from establishing any rhythm. Together these systems depend on superior talent, greater depth, better strength and more speed. When those components break down so does the offense.

In some respects, Tennessee's offensive game plan is a lot like that of the coalition forces — they like to pound Iraq and Fulmer loves to pound the rock.

During spring practice the search for play makers continues on The Hill. Mark Jones has moved from the defensive secondary to reinforce the suspect receiving corps. James Banks gets a longer look and more reps in the competition for a back-up quarterback and Gerald Riggs Jr. gets to showcase his considerable skills as a feature back.

The development of Riggs would give Tennessee a potent one-two punch at tailback with Cedric Houston much like it enjoyed with Chuck Webb and Reggie Cobb, James Stewart and Charlie Garner and Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry. It would also allow Jabari Davis to work into the rotation at fullback where he would present a big-play running threat on quick traps and counters.

It would be interesting to see Tennessee develop a package for Banks and perhaps insert him for two or three series in games. This would provide a hedge against the loss of Casey Clausen at quarterback while allowing the Vols to get Banks vital game experience. In the process, it would force defenses to prepare for two different offensive looks. Add a full house option series featuring Banks, Houston, Davis and Riggs, and SEC defensive coordinators might stop sleeping the week they face the Vols.

In this era, offenses have to be both versatile and balanced to challenge defenses which are increasingly athletic and deployed from ever more sophisticated schemes.

If Tennessee can get the air attack coordinated with the ground forces this fall, it might gain control of the SEC East and end the Bulldogs regime. On the other hand, if they struggle like last season the Shiite might hit the fan.

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