One of Derek Dooley's primary concerns when he took the Big Orange reins 32 months ago was that his team couldn't match up physically with SEC bullies such as Alabama and LSU. Those fears were well founded.
Three recruiting classes later, the Vols have closed the gap, however. The Big Orange still may not match the Tide and Tigers in skill level and depth but it can match them in size. And that's a comforting thought — to the players, as well as to Dooley.
"It helps our mindset a lot to know we can compete with them," said junior guard Zach Fulton, who packs 319 pounds on a 6-foot-5 frame. "We're not going to be pushed around by any more teams. Like coach Dooley says: 'It's not happening anymore.'"
Tennessee projects to average roughly 315 pounds per man across its offensive and defensive lines this fall. Fulton says the trench warfare in practice is downright brutal.
"It's a lot more physical than it's ever been on both sides of the line," he said. "It's a tough battle. You've got to get low and outwork 'em (defensive linemen) every play. If you don't you'll get pushed back."
Fulton believes conditioning coach Ron McKeefery deserves considerable credit for the increase in size and strength among Tennessee's players.
"A lot," Fulton said. "I love the offseason conditioning program. My bench went up like 45 pounds (to 445) and my squat went up about 45 pounds (to 555) since last winter."
Size and strength alone don't win games, of course, but lack of them can lose games. The Vols were physically outmatched on a regular basis in 2009, the year before Dooley's arrival. A comparison of '09 players to 2012 players dramatically illustrates the growth that has occurred at several key positions during the past three years:
|Strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery is helping the Volunteers close the gap in the stature department.|
"It helps a lot," he said. "We've got a lot of teams going to a more traditional style — running the ball down your throat. When you've got little guys and guys that aren't strong enough to hold up against runs, the other team is able to bust runs down the middle.
"The most devastating thing for a defense is seeing yourself gashed by runs up the middle. Having bigger guys in there to stop the run and force the ball outside is a big help. It's great."
In addition, Lathers believes the heft of Tennessee's offensive line is helping make the defensive line better.
"It definitely does," he said. "Our D-linemen and linebackers go up against one of the biggest offensive lines in the nation every day, so that should help us out a lot."
No knock on the Sullins twins, but Lathers believes they simpled lacked the heft to excel at the SEC level.
"Yeah, they were a little short, a little small, so guys were able to push 'em around a little more," he recalled. "That really didn't prepare us for what we faced in the SEC. Our line now helps us out a lot, and we're thankful for 'em."
Another senior linebacker, Greg King, also enjoys being surrounded by behemoths. He believes he'll benefit considerably from operating behind bulkier defensive linemen in 2012.
"It's pretty easy because they can take up more space," King said. "They open up gaps, so you can roam and make plays. I know for a fact that A.J., Curt Maggitt and all of those guys love it."
King, who packs 238 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame, says the weight helps him when he's fighting off blocks and bringing down hard-running tailbacks.
"You're more physical. You've got more balance in your steps," he said. "You're able to come down and make harder hits. Like Coach (Sal Sunseri) says: 'Be the hammer, not the nail.'"
For the first time in awhile, Tennessee's tool box is going to feature an assortment of large hammers.
See what Fulton had to say on other topics in the video below following a workout this week: