Consider that this is a team that didn't have a single player with a full season of starting experience in its defensive front seven. No defensive tackle on the Vols roster had ever started a game. Outside linebackers Kevin Simon and Kevin Burnett were coming off season ending injuries and had only six games combined as starters. Robert Peace became a starter at middle linebacker as a junior in 2002, but was felled by a shoulder injury and missed the last five games. Ditto for Constantin Ritzmann, who was lost before last season even started and was working his way back from a serious knee injury. He had game experience but no starting experience. The leading tackler among the returning players in UT's front seven was linebacker Jason Mitchell with 42 which ranked No. 9 on the team in 2002.
The problems were even more pronounced on offense. Not only did the Vols lack a featured receiver, the three wideouts with experience — Tony Brown, C.J. Fayton and Jomo Fagan — caught one TD each last season. Mark Jones and James Banks had never caught a pass in a collegiate game while Chris Hannon had three catches. Highly touted true freshman Robert Meachem wowed observers in preseason practice, but was lost for the year in the Vols first scrimmage. Banks ended up leading UT with 39 catches which is the same total Jason Witten and Brown each had last season when they led the Vols in receiving. It's the first time since 1986 and 1987 that Tennessee failed to have a receiver with at least 40 catches in consecutive seasons.
Neither did the Vols have a tight end who had ever caught a pass. Victor McClure, who is more loose tackle than tight end, finished the season with one catch this year.
In addition to lacking a featured receiver or a receiving threat at tight end, the Vols also lacked a featured back. Cedric Houston led the Vols for the second consecutive season in rushing with under 800 yards. That's the first time one Tennessee back has led the Vols in rushing two straight seasons with under 800 yards since James Berry turned the trick in 1981 and 1982.
As Randy Moore reported on Inside Tennessee, Fulmer placed much of the blame for the Vols offensive woes on the running backs during his Sunday teleconference.
''We never played great at running back, nobody ever took over. I think the offensive line played pretty darned solid most of the year. But we never had anything dynamic at RB. There were some flashes but nothing as consistent as it needed to be; that was part of problem. And there were some inconsistencies at receiver from time to time,'' Fulmer said.
Obviously, the running game is a coordinated effort that requires good down field blocking and consistent receiving threats to force some double coverage. Clearly, Tennessee had its share of problems at running back the last two seasons, but the offensive line has to also share in the blame. Much more was expected from a group that featured four seniors — Scott Wells, Sean Young, Anthony Herrera and Chavis Smith among its first seven players. The Vols also had two red shirt juniors in Michael Munoz and Jason Respert. Three of these seasoned Vols were high school All-Americans and Wells was a four-year starter.
Fulmer's proclamations that the line was "pretty darn solid" doesn't fly in the face of 25 sacks allowed this season. Remember that line coach Jimmy Ray Stevens set a goal of single-digit sacks before the season started. Furthermore, if the problem with the ground game was mostly the backs, how did fifth-year senior Tony Thompson take over from an injured Chuck Webb as UT's starting tailback in the third game of 1990 and finish with 1,261 yards in 219 carries?
Compare that to Jamal Lewis as a freshman in 1997, who gained 1,364 yards in 232 carries. Lewis averaged 5.9 yards per carry that year while Thompson averaged 5.8 yards per attempt in 1990. Lewis went on to set the NFL's single-game rushing record with 295 yards this fall while Thompson, who weighed 180 pounds and never started a college game before the 1990 campaign, hasn't been heard from since.
This comparison isn't intended to disparage Thompson, who was a serviceable athlete with a lot of heart, but it does point out that if the O-line is opening holes most Division I backs will have solid success.
Here's another example: In 1995, Jay Graham set a new single season rushing record at Tennessee with 1,438 yards behind an experienced front. Tennessee's line in 1996 wasn't nearly as strong and the same Jay Graham gained just 797 yards.
Fulmer may be very sincere in his estimates, but it could also be a recruiting ploy. And all is fair in love and recruiting wars. You see, with four offensive linemen graduating, Fulmer isn't going to have problems attracting O-line prospects. In fact, Tennessee already has a commitment from the nation's No. 1 junior college offensive line prospect in 6-7, 355-pound Albert Toeaina.
On the other hand, Tennessee has three tailbacks sharing reps and all three are supposed to be back next year. Most premier running backs aren't interested in sitting out a season anywhere. Most know that a running back's career is inherently short and NFL fame and fortune are fleeting. They want to sign where they can have an immediate impact and an opportunity for early entry into the NFL. Gerald Riggs is already making noise that he may not return to Tennessee next season, while Jabari Davis and Cedric Houston will both be seniors. That puts the Vols in a difficult position because to attract a top running back they have to show him how he will be used as freshmen.
In truth, the Vols' first choice among running back prospects in 2001, when it signed Houston, Davis and Derrick Tinsley, was Carnell Williams. They got a commitment from Williams before Auburn intervened and convinced Cadillac to stay in state. The Vols second choice that same season was probably Kevin Jones who had academic problems and eventually ended up at Virginia Tech. They also liked Frank Gore, who signed with Miami and Lydell Ross, who signed with Ohio State. In 2000, the Vols made a run at Willis MaGahee but again lost out to the Hurricanes.
This is not intended to suggest that UT's coaches weren't happy to land Houston, Davis and Tinsley, but they also probably knew there were better pure runners on the board that year. Houston's success was at a small classification school in Arkansas. Tinsley was considered light to be an every down back and many believed Davis would end up a fullback. Of those three, Houston has the best future but durability and consistency remain a concern.
Fulmer and his staff accomplished a lot this season and although it wasn't exactly done with smoke and mirrors, it was done with a seasoned QB, an improving D and an outstanding kicking game. That's why next year could be better even with a green quarterback because the Vols figure to be better everywhere else.
Ultimately, it begins and ends with recruiting and that's where Fulmer is probably at his best. He knew his comments about the running backs would be widely reported and could pave the way for signing a difference maker at tailback.
Stay tuned and we'll keep you informed on how the top prospects shake out.