Through the first three games of the campaign, there is little doubt Tennessee's running game is back on track and power football has been restored. However in the first half of the Florida game last week, Vol tailbacks were stonewalled in the middle and quarterback Casey Clausen was often harassed, hurried and hit in a pocket that resembled a grass hut in a hurricane.
In the second half, Tennessee made some adjustments, getting to the perimeter with the running game and taking advantage of single coverage in the passing game. More importantly, the Vols finally took charge of the neutral zone and knocked the Gators back on their heels. That success disabled Florida's aggressive line schemes and provided Clausen the time he needed to connect on several key passes.
When you talk about battle-tested veterans in the trenches, you're talking about Tennessee. The five UT starters in the offensive line for the Florida game — right tackle Sean Young, right guard Chavis Smith, center Scott Wells, left guard Anthony Herrera and left tackle Michael Munoz — have a combined 23 years of football experience after high school. All, except Young, have had a redshirt season or an extra year to develop. (Smith played a year at Fork Union Military in Virginia after graduating from high school.)
With that wealth of experience and maturity at positions which virtually demand it, it's ironic that the key lineman up front for Tennessee, and perhaps the Vols most valuable down lineman on the team, is true sophomore Cody Douglas of LaMarque, Texas.
Against Florida, Douglas played both guard positions as well as right tackle to solidified Tennessee's offensive front. Such versatility from any linemen is rare, but that type of diversity from a second-year player is almost unheard of. It's not something Coach Phillip Fulmer would ever expect from a young player, but he readily admits Douglas is different.
"Cody Douglas is a really, really good football player," he said during his weekly phone conference, "and one day, if he keeps working like he is and like he will I think, he'll be a great football player. Cody is a special, special player and a special young man."
Since Fulmer isn't accustomed to bestowing glowing praise on any player much less a relative neophyte O-lineman, we must asked: What makes Douglas so unique?
Any film study of Douglas, 6-5, 310, reveals a powerfully built body with long arms, quick feet and outstanding athleticism in the open field. Douglas, who was the Texas super heavyweight weightlifting champion two straight years, has outstanding strength and a great base or foundation. While most high school lineman strive to reach the magical 400-pound mark in the bench press, Douglas was doing reps with 415 and he was squatting 650 pounds as a junior.
He's also very intelligent on the field and accomplished in the classroom. This is a young man who went from being a mediocre student in junior high to finishing high school with a 4.1 overall grade point average. Moreover, he credits the testimonial of a failed student with providing the motivation.
"Actually, I used to just go through school and not work hard at all," he said. "I pulled mediocre grades. I was looking at one of the guys who played high school football over at Texas City, who was a good player and I had seen where he signed with a junior college because of his grades. He wrote an article for the newspaper saying he wished he would have taken school more seriously when he was a ninth grader. He said if he had it to do all over again, he would have worked harder. That's the only reason he wasn't playing big-time college football was his grades. Really from that day on, I said I wasn't going to let grades hold me back. I figured I would be a pretty good football player. From that point on I didn't make but a couple of B's, I put academics first and worked just as hard academically as I did athletically."
That type of dogged determination also underscores Douglas' efforts on the gridiron. He knows how to finish a block like nobody's business and is looking for someone else to hit once his assignment is completed.
"He's a good one," said his high school head coach Jerry Drones after he signed with Tennessee in 2002. "He's one of those that's really got his head screwed on right. Cody and I jog together. He's one of the few on the team that will go jogging with me because they all say I run too far. We talk a lot and he's always got his head in the right direction. He knows what he wants and he takes care of business as far as school and making sure he had everything right. He's a good person, a hard worker and he has good confidence in himself."
Douglas is the first to admit that he's a nice guy off the football field, but a different animal once he puts on the helmet. "I try to go out and give 110 percent," he said. "I just try to beat the man in front of me. When I go out on the football field there's just a complete switch. I'm the nicest guy you'd want to meet, but when I put on that helmet there's just a complete transformation. I just play with all out relentlessness. I kind of take a defensive attitude on offense, I want to attack the man in front of me."
Douglas was one of three high school all-American offensive linemen the Vols signed in 2002, but he wasn't nearly as highly rated as either Rob Smith or Brandon Jefferies.
Obviously, Douglas has already exceeded expectations and it's doubtful Coach Fulmer would trade him for any other college lineman in the country.