Fulmer likes his OL

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer is optimistic about his offensive line.

He should be. He's got two veteran guards returning in Cody Douglas and Rob Smith. He's got an All-SEC left tackle in Arron Sears. He's got a fifth-year senior at center in Richie Gandy.

And he's got a new and improved right tackle in Albert Toeaina.

Toeaina came to Tennessee from the junior college ranks as a mountain of a man at 6-6 and 380. But there are some disadvantages to being that big.

In junior college, Toeaina didn't need technique - just size. He could dominant without learning or playing with technique. But you can't get away with that in the talent-laden SEC. Play low or you don't go. And if you don't know which way to go, you're in deep trouble.

Toeaina is now playing with technique and he knows where to go, which is one reason Fulmer said Toeaina is ``100 percent better'' than he was last year.

``He didn't know a lot when he got here,'' Fulmer said. ``He didn't have a lot of individual coaching. Then he broke a small bone in his leg and was out four weeks. That that set him back.

``This year, he's much more confident and poised about making checks and adjustments. When you're more confident and know what you're doing, you can use those physical skills a lot better. He's a much more polished player.''

Toeaina has shed his weight down to about 350, he said.

``I feel great,'' he said. ``I'm moving well. I feel a lot quicker and I feel healthier. I'm ready to go.''

He's ready to go because he knows what to do.

``Man, coming into a really big program, learning the plays was 90 percent of my problem,'' he said. ``I couldn't do nothing without the plays.

``When it was just hitting drills, I was good at that. My physicality was there. But my mentality with the plays, I couldn't get it.''

But a year in the system and a year learning from Michael Munoz and Jason Respert has made all the difference.

``This year,'' he said, ``I'm ready to roll, you know what I'm saying.''

* Justin Harrell joins Jesse Mahelona as one of the nation's best defensive tackle tandems. Mahelona had 18.5 tackles behind the line and is a preseason All-American. Harrell was the defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl.

Harrell said he doesn't mind being overshadowed by Mahelona.

``I need to model my game after a lot of things he does,'' Harrell said. ``But there's a lot of things I see him do that I know I can't do.''

Such as.

``Man, I've seen this boy crawl around on the ground, on all fours, diving at people's ankles and heels making plays all the way across the field,'' Harrell said. ``Some of the things he does amaze me.''

Asked if Mahelona learned his techniques in his native Hawaii, Harrell said: ``I don't know where he got it from.''

Toeaina has an idea.

``I think it was just climbing palm trees and going through the bushes chasing after pigs,'' Toeaina said. ``That's his life. I guess that's how he learned it.''

* Tennessee junior guard Rob Smith said he's looking forward to opening the SEC season at Florida and at LSU.

``I love it,'' he said. ``Right off the bat, you're going to know how good you are and where you stand nationally. You might as well play the best right off the bat.''

Smith said he enjoys playing on the road.

``I've always had fun (away from home),'' Smith said. ``I always get a little more excited when fans are yelling stuff at you and dog cussing you. It always gets me a little more fired up.''

The worst place to play on the road?

``Oh, man, Georgia for sure,'' Smith said. ``They've got like grandmas flipping you off and stuff. I like it. It puts a big smile on my face.''

NOTES: Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton said the UT students returned on average 2,300 tickets per game last year. So, fans in need can call the ticket office Wednesday and Thursday before a home game to see if tickets have been returned. . With the UT non-conference schedule set through 2009, Hamilton said he is focusing on opponents from the ACC, Big 12 and Big 10 for the years 2010 through 2015. UT will be playing California and UCLA over the next four years. . Hamilton said UT's budget operating expenses have been reduced from $24 million in 2003 to $20 million this past fiscal year. . Hamilton said UT has taken the black out of the basketball court design and gone with strictly orange and white.

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