Vols may rely on run game

With a fourth-year starter at quarterback and more talent at wide receiver, Tennessee could be a more pass-oriented football team this fall. But don't bet on it.

With a fourth-year starter at quarterback and more talent at wide receiver, Tennessee could be a more pass-oriented football team this fall. But don't bet on it.

Most indications suggest the Vols will be more of a smash-mouth team this fall. Consider:

• The Vols are replacing a pass-catching tight end (Jason Witten) with a 300-pound converted guard (Victor McClure).

• The Vols have four power running backs in the 225- to 235-pound range (Cedric Houston, Jabari Davis, Gerald Riggs, Jr., and Troy Fleming).

• The Vols have a veteran offensive line (three senior starters, a junior and a sophomore) that averages 305 pounds per man and seems better at run blocking than pass protecting.

• The Vols' attempt to be a finesse offense last year failed miserably.

• The Vols' coaches are strongly emphasizing physical play this fall.

''I think we've got to establish the run in the football game,'' head coach Phillip Fulmer said this week. ''That plays to our strength and allows us to do other things. When we've been able to run the football in years past we've been at our best offensively.''

Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders echoes those sentiments.

''We're definitely going to try and be physical in the run game,'' Sanders said. ''Last year, for whatever reason, we got to where we ended up having to try and trick people too much. Calling plays, I felt like I had no margin for error. If you didn't call the exact perfect play, it didn't work.

''This year we've made a big emphasis on being more physical, trying to knock people back. Back in 1995, '96, '97, '98, a lot of times the defense would know what was coming because the offensive linemen would tell 'em, 'Hey, we're getting ready to run right here,' and there wasn't anything they could do about it. When you can do that, it's easy to call plays.''

The question is: Can anyone line up and run the ball down an opponent's throat anymore?

''If you're good enough,'' Sanders said. ''That's the challenge. You have to be good enough to do that. Obviously, your ability comes into play in that, and the defense's ability. In '98 we said we were going to do that and we did it. Last year we weren't good enough to do that.

''That's what makes a wide receiver so valuable. When they gang up on the run and give you one-on-one coverage -- and you've got a guy out there who's good enough to beat 'em consistently -- then it makes offensive football a simpler game.''

Tennessee has more quality wide receivers than a year ago but the Vols will sorely miss Witten, who was an unusually gifted pass catcher for a tight end. McClure, his successor, will be hard-pressed to catch a dozen passes this fall.

''Victor is a much better blocker than Jason was; there's no doubt about that,'' Sanders said. ''But he's obviously not near the pass receiver.''

It may not matter. From all appearances, the Vols are committed to being more of a smash-mouth offense this fall. If so, McClure's blocking ability should provide a boost.

''I hope it does,'' Sanders said. ''When you bring the tight end in, the defense is going to bring an extra guy in there, too, so that gives you one more guy to block or one more guy for the back to beat. Victor brings a lot to the table from a blocking standpoint.''

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