And so it begins

As expected, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer announced Sunday afternoon that he has fired receivers coach Pat Washington and offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens.

Speculation surfaced several weeks ago that Washington would be fired.

The issue with Stephens wasn't so clear. Fulmer told me last month that Stephens was the best teacher of all of the offensive line coaches he had hired.

However, the running game wasn't productive this season. The Vols averaged 130 rushing yards per game, but much of that came against the weak run defenses of South Carolina, Memphis, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

Against the better teams on UT's schedule, the Vols had trouble mounting a run game. Tennessee had 66 rushing yards against Florida, 70 against LSU, 48 against Georgia and 109 against Alabama. UT lost to each of those teams, except LSU.

Tennessee's receivers underachieved throughout the season. Not one wideout caught 30 passes. The receiving corps was hampered by poor routes, dropped passes, lack of effort and untimely penalties. Injuries also played a part.

Against Kentucky, receiver Bret Smith had two penalties that wiped out Arian Foster touchdowns of 78 and 54 yards. As a result, the Vols won 27-8 and failed to exceed 30 points in a game during the regular season for the first time since 1964.

I spoke with Washington on Friday and he said he planned to return. He said he didn't want to go out on a sour note and had ``unfinished business'' to tend to. He said he wasn't aware that Fulmer was on the verge of firing him.

I asked Washington if he'd become frustrated to the point of wanting to resign like offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. Washington said that wasn't the case.

Fulmer had only fired three previous coaches: secondary coach Tim Keane and offensive line coaches Mark Bradley and Mike Barry.

Fulmer must now fill three spots on his staff.

The first vacancy will be taken by David Cutcliffe, who will be hired Monday as offensive coordinator. Cutcliffe will have input into the hiring of the new assistants.

A timetable is not known, but it is known that Fulmer wanted to move quickly to hire Cutcliffe so he could tell recruits who the new offensive coordinator would be.

Washington came to Tennessee in 1995 from Baylor. He also coached at Southwestern Louisiana, TCU and Auburn, where he played quarterback with Bo Jackson in the mid-1980s.

Stephens was a casualty at Florida when Steve Spurrier left the Gators for the Washington Redskins. Stephens was an offensive lineman, tight end and linebacker at Florida (1973-76). He coached in high school for 14 years before landing on the Florida staff in 1993. He replaced Mike Barry on the UT staff three years ago.

Stephens' offensive lines had a reputation for being efficient in pass protection, but not so effective in run blocking.

While the Vols did make progress in the run game late in the season, UT couldn't pick up key first downs late against Vanderbilt, costing the Vols a chance to run out the clock and win that game. UT's line clearly didn't get the push or play as physical as Fulmer would have liked.

Only a year ago, the Vols produced two 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history. But the play of the line this season drew criticism from several former UT offensive linemen, including Tim Irwin, Bubba Miller and Mike Stowell. Each felt the linemen were too big and not athletic enough to be effective in UT's scheme. Miller was critical of the linemen's fundamentals.

Where does Fulmer turn to replace Washington? That's unclear, but you can bet he has or will contact former UT assistant Kippy Brown (now with the Houston Texans) or Charlie Harbison (Alabama).

Offensive line candidates include Notre Dame assistant John Latino (who worked at Ole Miss under Cutcliffe), and former UT assistants Steve Marshall (Texans) and Doug Marrone (New York Jets). It might also be worth a call to Auburn offensive line coach Hugh Nall.

Given his previous success, Cutcliffe could work wonders with an offense that woefully underachieved this season.

It's worth noting that Arkansas has made a strong pitch to hire Cutcliffe. Houston Nutt and athletic director Frank Broyles have been courting Cutcliffe.

``All I've done is talk to Houston as a friend,'' Cutcliffe said. ``We never got to that point (of a job offer).''

Cutcliffe and UT have reached that point.

Fulmer can only hope that Cutcliffe's second tenure as offensive coordinator will be as successful as the first.

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