Vols Must Guard Against Pressure

Ask most UT fans to name the two most significant positions in the Vols' 2003 offense and you'd probably hear about the urgent need for a deep threat and a play-maker at wide receivers.

The search for players fitting that description underscored UT's recruiting efforts in the Class of 2003, as the Volunteers came away with three all-Americans in Jayson Swain, Robert Meachem and Bret Smith.

During the offseason, Tennessee's coaches established the development or acquisition of such players as essential to the offense's success and, in the spring, moved senior defensive back Mark Jones to wide receiver to help bolster the position.

With Kelley Washington starting only four games last season, Tennessee got up close and personal with the predicament caused by not having a player capable of drawing double-team coverage, or forcing DBs to back off the line of scrimmage. The defense, which already enjoys a numerical advantage of 11 defenders to 10 blockers and 11 to 9 when the quarterback hands off, is able to jam the box and have at least one defender uncovered when pressuring the passer or blitzing the run. The end result is a radically reduced rate of success in both the pass and run, as the offense is forced to operate with serious restrictions in time and space.

Conversely, in 2001, when Tennessee had dual deep threats in Washington and Donte Stallworth, defenses were forced to provide deep help from the safeties, preventing them from walking up in run support. The end result was an offense that hummed, hitting on all cylinders i.e., running inside and outside, passing short, mid range and long. While it's difficult to overstate the need for at least two dangerous wide receivers, the performance by a pair of offensive guards will be at least as important to Tennessee's hopes for an offensive revival this fall.

Last season when Tennessee was unable to run defenders off the line of scrimmage, the O-line was left to try and contain jailbreaks as Clausen was forced to run for his life. The breach along UT's front wall was the guard positions as pressure often poured up the middle, destroying the timing of the passing game on the rare occasions wideouts could get open.

Like every other unit on Tennessee's football team last year, the Vols were victimized by injuries in the offensive line. Starting guards Chavis Smith and Jason Respert were in and out of the lineup throughout the 2002 campaign and were never really 100 percent at the same time.

The problem was further compounded by the fact most of Tennessee's backups were untested, as in the case of true freshmen Rob Smith and Cody Douglas. Versatile junior Anthony Herrera also suffered injuries and Sean Young never appeared comfortable at guard, which explains why he'll get a look at tackle this season. As a consequence of all the shuffling, Tennessee never developed any cohesion in the middle and the sum of the offensive line was never as good as its parts. The Vols didn't establish a consistent run game until down the stretch and for the first time in a long time couldn't protect their quarterback.

This year will have to be different or it won't matter much who plays receiver. The offensive line has to come together as a unit, build early confidence and gain momentum throughout the challenging 12-game campaign. Fifth-year senior and four-year starter Scott Wells is a rock solid anchor at center while Michael Munoz may be the most underrated offensive lineman in college football, given the physical obstacles he's overcome. Young will still have to prove himself at tackle, but his potential is as outstanding as it is overdue. Either Douglas or Herrera could help at tackle if Smith and Respert come through at guard. Incoming freshman Aaron Sears might also make an early contribution at tackle.

The key is the development of Respert, who has battled injuries and inconsistency throughout his career. At his best, the redshirt junior is a dominating force up front who's agile in open field, quick off the line and tenacious in the trenches. He also finally appears healthy and if he stays that way he's poised to cash in on his blocking talent. If Respert can lock down the left guard position, the Vols can let the best man among the threesome of Rob Smith, Douglas and Herrera push Chavis Smith to peak performances or out of a job.

Throw a 290-pound tight end (Victor McClure) and a 250-pound fullback (Will Revill) into the mix with an offensive line that is big, strong, quick and deep and you have the makings of a potent offense. Oh yeah, don't forget to add an ample helping of good health to make this winning formula complete.

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