Rebuilding O-Line Means Replacing Wells

Reconstituting Tennessee's running game is Job One for the Vols this spring which invites a daunting question: How can you lose four former starters with 15 years of game experience and hope to have a better offensive line?

Yes, the Vols will seemingly have to defy the laws of logic if the 2004 offensive line is to become the type of dominating front that has characterized the best football under Phillip Fulmer.

However, the answer might be found in two off-season developments. First left tackle and team captain Michael Munoz elected to return for another season instead of entering the NFL Draft. Coming off a solid year in which he was relatively injury free, Munoz is poised for a big year in which he might garner some of the honors that have eluded him since an all-American freshman campaign. That was followed by a serious knee surgery that resulted in a redshirt season.

The other development was the signing of 6-foot-5, 365-pound junior college lineman Albert Toeaina, arguably the most impressive line prospect in the Class of 2004. That gives Tennessee the type of tackle tandem it had with Charles McRae and Antone Davis in 1990, who were also the first two offensive players picked in the 1991 NFL Draft at No. 7 and No. 8 of the first round.

It remains to be seen how high Munoz and Toeaina will be taken, but there is little doubt they can be a dynamite duo this fall that will pack a punch up front. It also represents a significant upgrade from 2003 when Munoz was teamed with Sean Young who moved to the position as a senior after playing guard most of his career.

In fact, Young isn't listed among either the top 40 players at offensive tackle or the top 39 offensive guards in Sporting News NFL Draft and scouting report. Part-time UT starter Chavis Smith is rated No. 27 among the guard prospects and there were only 15 taken in the 2003 draft. Young and Smith will both probably be given a shot through free agency, but Toeaina and Cody Douglas, backed up by redshirt freshman Eric Young, represent an upgrade at tackle and guard for the Vols.

Replacing center Scott Wells and guard/tackle Anthony Herrera is more problematical. Wells projects as a mid-round choice and is listed as the draft's No. 5 center prospect. Herrera is ranked No. 7 among guards and his versatility is sure to stand him well with NFL teams looking for two players for the price of one.

Here's the complete scouting report on Wells and Herrera who project as fifth- and fourth-round choices, respectively.

Scott Wells, 6-2, 290, 5.3, Tennessee

NFL COMPARISON: Casey Wiegmann, Chiefs

STRENGTHS: A tough, durable player. Plays with good balance and can get movement in the running game. Does a good job of staying low and generally gets under defenders' pads. Has great work ethic and leadership skills.

WEAKNESSES: Upside is limited. Lacks range, has problems adjusting to a moving target and isn't a great downfield blocker. Lacks an explosive punch and has adequate but not great upper-body strength.

BOTTOM LINE: There is a chance Wells can overcome his lack of size and average athletic ability to become a starting center, but he more likely will be an excellent backup. FINAL GRADE: 4.3

Wells also gets the nod for "best intangibles." (Has the perfect combination of intelligence, experience, leadership and maturity. Already is married and has a child. Elected team captain in 2003. Started 46 games at center for the Vols.)

Anthony Herrera, 6-3, 310, 5.20, Tennessee

NFL COMPARISON: Kevin Donnalley

STRENGTHS: Has experience at both guard positions and left tackle. Shows solid initial pop and power as a run blocker. Will win most battles once he locks on. Has decent feet in the short area. Does a nice job of keeping separation in pass protection. Plays with a mean streak and works to finish.

WEAKNESSES: Durability is a big concern. Most significant injury was a shoulder in 2002, but he missed significant time with ankle injuries as a senior. Does not show great change-of-direction skills as a run blocker on the second level. Overall technique is surprisingly poor.

BOTTOM LINE: Herrera is a versatile player who projects as a guard. He has enough upside experience, size and strength to draft early on the second day, but his inconsistent technique, below-average athletic ability and durability issues make him a risky pick before then. FINAL GRADE: 5.6

Aaron Sears can't match Herrera in terms of experience but he is more athletic and has better overall potential. His ability to pull and operate in space should allow Tennessee to run more screens and toss sweeps. Along with Douglas, it gives the Vols a pair of quick guards with good speed which should translate to more offensive versatility.

The real key for UT's O-line is the man in the middle which means a lot is riding on the play of fifth-year senior Jason Respert, who has only played center in a couple of games. If Respert is able to seize and make the most of this opportunity, the running game will be back on track at Tennessee.

Ironically the best example of a UT player stepping into that role happened in Respert's freshman season of 2000 when none other than Scott Wells stepped in for injured Fred Weary in the Florida game as a redshirt freshman and started 46 games in a row.

If Respert can do as a redshirt senior what Wells did as a redshirt freshman UT's offensive line could be outstanding this fall.

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