Can Vols Draw A Line In the Sand?

Phillip Fulmer's success at Tennessee as a coach is usually defined by the quality of Big Orange offensive lines, fronting powerful attacks capable of controlling the ball on the ground and striking quickly through the air.

The list of quarterbacks, running backs and receivers Tennessee has produced under Fulmer is a veritable NFL Who's Who featuring such notable names as: Charlie Garner, James Stewart, Peyton Manning, Peerless Price, Travis Henry, Jamal Lewis and Donte Stallworth.

This year Jason Witten and Kelley Washington will add further prestige to UT's reputation for producing outstanding offensive talent under Fulmer. He has also developed a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball, as six of the Vols 11 first round picks on Fulmer's watch have been from the defense.

Fulmer's "Pound The Rock" decree sums up his approach to the game of football. His first objective is a hostile takeover of the line of scrimmage, relentlessly driving the ball and eventually pounding the defensive front seven into submission.

Naturally, its takes a lot of depth and muscle to successfully pound a defense into capitulation and that's the rock upon which Fulmer has chosen to build his program. Tennessee under Fulmer has been about great offensive lines and lots of speed.

That's why it surprising to realize that in 10 years as head coach under Fulmer, Tennessee hasn't had a single offensive lineman taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. In fact, in his 12 seasons prior to becoming head coach at UT, when he served as offensive line coach and offensive coordinator, Tennessee only had two offensive lineman taken in the first round of the NFL Draft, and both of those were in the same season and neither lived up to expectations. By contrast, over Fulmer's decade as head coach, there have been four Tennessee defensive linemen taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.

The only first round offensive linemen produced at Tennessee under Fulmer were Charles McRae and Atone Davis, who were the first two offensive players taken in the 1991 draft. McRae went No. 7 in the first round to Tampa Bay that year and Davis was taken with the No. 8 pick by Green Bay and later traded to Philadelphia. McRae played five seasons with Tampa Bay and one with the Raiders before retiring. Davis played five seasons with the Eagles and two with Atlanta before retiring. Both players struggle to become starters and neither was ever selected for the Pro Bowl.

Compare the contributions of those high-priced picks to Tennessee's Raleigh McKenzie, a center/guard drafted No. 290 by Washington who enjoyed an NFL career that spanned three decades from 1986 to 2000. Tim Irwin and Harry Galbreath are two other Fulmer O-line projects that had long, successful pro careers despite being drafted No. 74 and No. 212. Ditto Bubba Miller, who was a free agent pick.

Although Vols going in the first round is the routine under Fulmer and in the later years of Johnny Majors 16-year head coaching stint, it wasn't always that way. The Vols experienced a 12-year dry spell between first rounders George Cafego, who was taken No. 1 overall by the Chicago Bears in 1940, and Bert Rechichar, who was the No. 9 pick by Cleveland in 1952.

That was followed by an 11-year gap between defensive tackle Doug Atkins, taken 10th in the first round by Cleveland, and defensive tackle Dick Evey, who was drafted in the first round by Chicago in 1964. That's a total of four Vols taken in round one over a 24-year span. Under Fulmer, Tennessee had three players taken in the first round in 1997, 2000 and again in 2002 for a total of nine No. 1 picks in four years.

The longest lapse in the modern era without a Vol going in round one was seven years from 1970 and 1977. Center Bob Johnson was taken as Cincinnati's first-ever pick at No. 2 in the first round in 1970, and center Robert Shaw was taken by Dallas in 1967 with the No. 27 choice.

Interestingly, there have been as many defensive tackles (five) from Tennessee taken in round one as there have been offensive linemen. Tennessee has had two tackles, two centers and one guard Ken DeLong taken in the first round as offensive linemen. Tennessee has also had three defensive ends taken in round one; Chris Mims in 1992, Todd Kelly in 1993 and Shaun Ellis in 2000.

What all of this data seems to indicate is that Tennessee has flourished under Fulmer when it comes to attracting and developing talent, but very little of that talent has come in the form of highly rated offensive lineman. Consider that McRae was a converted nose tackle while Davis was plucked from a prep school with solid but no spectacular credentials.

Such is not currently the case at Tennessee where a total of eight high school all-Americans O-linemen are on board in Michael Munoz, Sean Young, Jason Respert, Cody Douglas, Brandon Jefferies, Eric Young, Aaron Sears and Heath Benedict. All seven of these players have been recruited since 2000.

On balance, Tennessee probably has more talent in the current offensive line crop than it has ever had on campus at any point. Some of the distinguishing qualifications of this group are excellent quickness, speed and agility. Those traits are in ever increasing demand in a game that is getting faster by the second and requires linemen to get out ahead of the ball and make more plays in space.

The ability of linemen to come off the ball, get down the field and perform multiple tasks stretches defenses to the max and creates areas to exploit. The next revolution in football will be led by linemen that possess these abilities, empowering offenses to form points of attack from sideline to sideline by rapid redeployment. This will prevent the customary crowding of the box by defenses and wholesale blitzing.

In time, offenses will retake the initiative that currently belongs to the defense and is vividly demonstrated when defenses commonly hold powerful offenses in check in the biggest games; reference the last three Super Bowls or Ohio State's triumph over Miami.

Prospects like Young and Jefferies are good examples of the mobile lineman that will lead the way to change in the game of football. Both need to add weight and strength but their physical abilities are superior to most defensive linemen. Young has recorded a remarkable 4.7 time in the 40 and Jefferies has the quick feet of an outside linebacker.

This is the only area where offenses can substantially evolve in the physical sense. Receivers with sprinter's speed are already the rule instead of the exception and running backs are just as fast and usually bigger and stronger. In a game that is becoming more complex, quarterbacks will be valued as much for their mental dexterity as their physical ability. However linemen can become faster and more athletic, but not a whole lot stronger given the limitations imposed by bone and ligament. You have probably already noticed a trend in which offensive linemen are carrying less bulk in favor of more mobility.

In addition to a talented stable of agile linemen, the Vols also have some battle-tested veterans in Scott Wells, Anthony Herrera and Chavis Smith in the front five. All the components are on hand for this group to develop into outstanding offensive lines over the next four years. Of course, it remains to be seen how it all comes together under new line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens, and if playmakers emerge from a promising cast.

But the parts are in place, and if a healthy bottom line is a star-studded offensive line, it looks like Vol fans have some exciting days ahead.

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