Fulmer gets Candid

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer touted his team as a national championship contender before the season. He won't do that again.

``I didn't help things at the beginning of the season because I was optimistic,'' Fulmer said Monday during a frank discussion of his team with the Knoxville Quarterback Club. ``I was positive and excited. I'm not normally like that. I usually like for the team to show it on the field.

``I'm 55 years old and I learned a helluva good lesson. So, don't expect that from me anymore.''

It was certainly out of character for Fulmer to be so boastful about his team. He bragged about his quarterbacks, his linemen, his receivers, his running backs, his defense. He thought he had it all. But things didn't materialize and the Vols, a preseason No. 3 picked, staggered to a 5-6 season.

``You deserve a lot better than what we were able to represent on the field,'' Fulmer told the Quarterback Club.

``Nobody is sitting on their hands waiting for it to fix itself. We'll attack the issues head on.''

Fulmer took two huge steps in recent days in an effort to turn things around. He fired two assistants - receivers coach Pat Washington and offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens -- and hired David Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator.

``Not that that's a fix all or all their fault,'' Fulmer said of ousted assistants. ``I'd be passing the buck if I told you that. But when things go wrong, you need change.''

Fulmer vowed UT fans would not suffer through a repeat to the 2005 season.

``I'll never go through a season like this again, I can promise you that,'' he said.

``It's a lot more than a job to Phillip Fulmer. It's been a part of my life since I was 18. I'm not one bit thrilled about what happened.''

Fulmer posed more than 20 questions, then answered them as best he could.

``Do I feel like the team quit? No, we practiced hard,'' Fulmer said.

``Did we assume too much as a staff, did we assume we had more talent than we had? No, I don't think so.''

Fulmer did admit the offense ``grossly underachieved. . We had too many execution problems, meaning busts or missed assignments.''

Tennessee's offense finished 101 in the nation in scoring (18.6 points per game). Subtract points scored or set up by the defense, and UT averaged close to 15 points.

The Vols went against some talented SEC defenses the first half of the season, but during the second half, when the competition wasn't so stiff, the offense played like stiffs. UT averaged 331 total yards and less than 20 offensive points per game against South Carolina, Notre Dame, Memphis, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Those five teams gave up over 400 yards and almost 30 points per game.

Fulmer questioned whether the Vols were tough enough in practice, tough enough in scrimmages, accountable for mistakes.

Fulmer noted that last season's East Division champions had a ``refuse to loose'' attitude, taking six SEC games by six or fewer points. This season, the Vols lost three SEC games by four points or less.

``We could not make the play to help us win,'' Fulmer said. ``We never came together as an offensive team. I don't think it was an effort issue. I've been at it a long time and I can tell if players aren't giving effort.''

Fulmer expressed disappointment over the numerous off-the-field issues that have plagued the team over the past 18 months. Regarding the Vanderbilt post-game helmet throwing, Fulmer said he was ``sorry it was embarrassing.''

One recent development was the dismissal of offensive lineman Ell Ash, who interrupted a skirmish between two lineman, slammed one to the ground and punched him in the face. When separated, Ash cursed his way to the dressing room in front of UT athletic director Mike Hamilton.

That type behavior has occurred too often in recent years.

``The easy thing to do is cut their head off and say go away, don't come back,'' Fulmer said. ``I don't think my job is to be a rehabilitator. At the same time, I care about young people and I want them to have success. I want to touch their lives socially, academically and spiritually.''

He did admit he's given too many players too many chances: ``Was I too patient with a couple of guys? Yes, I was too patient with a couple of guys.''

Fulmer was clearly disappointed with the quarterback play and receiver play. A woeful passing game affected UT's run game and offensive production.

``Did we try to do too much?'' Fulmer said. ``I promise you that's going to get cleared up. I don't know if we were weak minded or overloaded their circuit.''

Fulmer said he's been well received on the recruiting trail.

``I can look into a recruit's eyes and say, `This was a blip on the screen. This is not what we're like at Tennessee.'''

Fulmer said several juniors are contemplating turning pro - guard Rob Smith, tackle Arron Sears, and defensive tackle Justin Harrell.

``My hope is all will stay,'' Fulmer said. ``We won't be as good if they don't, but I think we'll be efficient if all those guys leave.''

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