Big year for O-line

Despite the loss of senior starters Michael Munoz and Jason Respert from Tennessee's 2004 offensive line, the Vols could be even better up front in 2005. Just ask their head coach.

"It's our belief you've got to be good in the offensive front if you're going to compete for championships," Phillip Fulmer said. "And I think we've got as good a group there as we've had in some time.

Arron Sears, a 6-4, 338-pound junior with all-world potential, has moved from right tackle into Munoz' left tackle spot. Fellow junior Rob Smith, the only Vol lineman to start every game last fall, returns at left guard. Senior Cody Douglas is back for another year as the first-team right guard. Another senior, Albert Toeaina, assumes the right tackle job full-time after starting part-time there last fall. Senior Richie Gandy and junior David Ligon are waging a spirited battle to succeed Respert at center.

"I don't know if there is a Cosey Coleman in the bunch necessarily – that kind of dominating player – but there's a couple of guys that certainly could be," Fulmer said. "Arron Sears is that kind of player if he stays healthy and Rob Smith is that kind of player, with his toughness and intensity."

The head man went on to note that Douglas "has had three great years for us," and that the 6-6, 355-pound Toeaina "has probably made as much improvement as anybody in this front… If he can continue on that path and use his many physical talents, he has a chance to be one of those guys you watch on Sunday."

Fulmer added that Ligon "has done a good job of closing the gap" on Gandy while the latter was recovering from knee surgery.

Throw in talented backups such as Eric Young, Ramon Foster, Ell Ash and Anthony Parker, and Tennessee's line has the potential to be exceptional.

"Eric Young is close to ready to be a starter," Fulmer said. "Ell Ash has as much potential as anybody we've had in some time. Parker had a really good first day and Ramon Foster had a really good first day."

Smith, a junior captain, is equally optimistic about this offensive line.

"I think we're going to be pretty dad-goned good," he said, literally beaming. "We've got a lot of experience. We're big and athletic. All of us played together last year and did a decent job, so if we could keep that rolling this year, we could be pretty good."

Actually, the line did more than a "decent job" in 2004. It blocked well enough to produce two 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history. Still, there is room for improvement. Smith, for instance, believes he's come a long way since last season.

"I think I've gotten a lot better," he said. "The first half of last year I was kinda' nervous, questioning some things. But, after a whole season working out, I've gotten a little bigger, a little faster, a little leaner."

He grinned broadly. Then, no doubt looking ahead to Tuesday's first day in pads, he added: "I'm ready to roll. I'm ready to get out there."

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