'Big Toe' almost left

Tennessee football fans know Albert Toeaina is big. They know he's fast for his size. They know he had some adjustment problems after joining the Vols from junior college. But they didn't know how close he came to leaving the program last year … until now.

After joining the Vols in time for spring drills of 2004, the 6-6, 355-pounder expected to kick butt and take names in his first year at UT. Instead, he got hurt and missed several weeks of work. He struggled to learn his assignments and techniques, and his play showed it when he finally got some opportunities.

By midseason he was ready to go home to California.

"I was so frustrated I was about to leave and go back to the Pac-10 or something," he said this week. "I wanted to be closer to home, so my family could see me play, like they did when I was in high school and juco."

When he told his father of his plan, however, Albert met unexpected resistance.

"He said to stick it out because everything comes to an end," he recalled. "If I'd keep sticking and do all right, I'd have a positive future."

The "Big Toe" got a similar response when he informed Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer of his plan to leave.

"Coach Fulmer didn't want me to," Albert noted. "He disagreed with it."

Toeaina ultimately decided to stay, which was good news for Fulmer and bad news for Georgia's David Pollack. Toeaina did such a good job blocking the Bulldog defensive end that Pollack never got close to Vol quarterback Erik Ainge in UT's 19-14 upset last October. Pollack was so impressed he complimented Toeaina after the game.

"My technique was horrible," Toeaina recalled, "but I came to play physical with him. That's what you have to do."

Toeaina's technique, like his lack of familiarity with the Vol schemes, continued to plague him throughout the 2004 season.

"Sometimes I'd blow a fuse on a play because I didn't know which play it was," he said. "I didn't want to bother Cody (guard Cody Douglas) because he had his job to do, so I'd blow a play or a technique."

Toeaina made huge strides during the spring, however, and earned praise from Fulmer with his work this preseason.

"Albert's really made a lot of progress," the head coach said. "Coming in out of junior college, then having the broken bone in his leg that made him miss four or five weeks slowed him down. But by the end of the year he was playing pretty good."

He's playing even better now.

"I'd say he's 50 to 75 percent better right now than he was at any time last year just because he's been coached, he knows the plays and he's seen a lot," Fulmer said. "I'm hopeful he'll stay on that track. He's still got to work on his temperament and his poise. That's part of being a big-time lineman; you've got to have the aggressive temperament but controlled."

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