Putting J-Train on Fast Track to Success

Among the bundle of burning questions being batted about by Big Orange fans this summer is: who will start at fullback for the Volunteers in light of the fact there's no one on the roster who's ever played the position in a college game?

Considering how essential the role of fullback is to Tennessee's power running game, and how the ground attack is the key to re-igniting a Vol offense that has been sporadic the last two seasons, it's an essential concern.

There's no mystery as to how Tennessee reached such a rare state of depletion. Ruben Mayes was jettisoned from the program last year and currently plays fullback for the Grambling Tigers. Troy Fleming completed his eligibility in 2003 and was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in April. Then, last spring, Will Revill left the program of his own volition in pursuit of a spiritual path.

Did his decision leave the Vols without a pray?

Well... not necessarily. Former defensive lineman Corey Anderson auditioned for the job in the spring and exhibited solid progress in a short time. In February, the Vols signed Brentwood Academy fullback David Holbert, who was rated as one of the nation's top ten players at his position in the Class of 2004.

Those will be the two primary contenders coming into preseason practice, but there may be a better direction for Fulmer & Co. to go — one that doesn't put all the pressure on unproven prospects to pave the way to rushing success.

Many observers, both close to the situation and otherwise, have always thought Jabari Davis was a more natural fullback than tailback given his size, strength and short-yardage success. True enough, he has the type of straight-line speed you normally associate with a tailback, but his vision and evasion skills are more limited as have been his number of long runs in three seasons on the Hill.

Davis' experience in UT's offense could be invaluable at fullback and he automatically gives the Vols the best upgrade they've had at the position since Shawn Bryson's collegiate career ended six years ago. Davis would have to prove he can block consistently yet on the few occasions he was called upon to do that last season he performed well. Besides desire is the key to becoming a great blocker when you have the physical qualification.

Certainly it would be in Davis' best professional interest to play fullback this fall since the doubts about his tailback talent will be more closely scrutinized at the next level. If Davis shows he can handle the job at Tennessee, he'll greatly enhance his opportunities in the NFL. That's a powerful incentive for a player that hasn't fulfilled his potential.

In the short term it also creates more carries for Gerald Riggs Jr., while opening reps for another change-of-pace back like Derrick Tinsley, Cory Larkins or newcomers JaKouri Williams and Arian Foster. The Vols need to develop a feature back for the future. Undoubtedly, Tennessee's best rushing teams in the Phillip Fulmer era have used at least two backs with talents diverse enough to attack a defense both inside and outside. That capability has been missing in large degree the last two seasons. Having a fullback who can block and blast the center of the line will open the perimeter and allow the Vols to exploit schemes that pressure from the edge. (A common theme in 2003.)

Two running threats in the game at the same time sets up counters and misdirection plays. Plus with a mobile quarterback like Brent Schaeffer it would allow Tennessee to make use of a triple option package which is tough for defenses to prepare for and harder to stop.

One more note on this subject. Jabari Davis was listed by Phil Steele's College Football Preview magazine as the nation's No. 2 fullback. The Sporting News named him the SEC's best short yardage runner in it's annual preseason publication. Street & Smith's conference preview listed Davis as the SEC's biggest underachiever.

Maybe he's just playing the wrong position.


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