UT's top signee?

Many observers believe offensive lineman Jacques McClendon of Chattanooga was Tennessee's premier football signee for 2006. Some insist it was tight end Lee Smith of Powell. Others say it was defensive end Walter Fisher, a junior college transfer.

Offensive line coach Greg Adkins, who coordinated the 2005-06 recruiting effort, says there's no doubt who deserves that distinction.

"Getting Arron Sears back was huge," Adkins said, referring to the 6-4, 320-pound junior offensive tackle who spurned the NFL Draft in favor of another year at Tennessee. "Obviously, he was our best signee."

Adkins has a point. Even the most ballyhooed signee is an unproven commodity, whereas Sears' value is unquestioned. He has started 23 of Tennessee's last 24 games, missing one start due to an ankle injury. Last fall he started nine games at left tackle, plus one each at left guard and right guard.

"It's great to have Arron back from a leadership standpoint," Adkins said. "I'm going to push Arron to be a better player."

Sears' value is magnified by the fact he's the only returning starter from the 2005 offensive front. Cody Douglas, Albert Toeaina and Richie Gandy are out eligibility, while Rob Smith elected to bypass his senior season and declare for the NFL Draft.

"We would've loved to have Rob Smith back but that didn't work out," Adkins said. "That presents lots of opportunities for the other guys … and not just the young guys. We need them all to step forward and take the challenge."

A common criticism of the 2005 line was that it lacked toughness. Tennessee struggled in third-and-short and fourth-and-short situations last fall, suggesting the blockers weren't rugged enough to make a crease when opponents stacked the line. As a result, spring practice may be more physical than usual this year.

"Every spring is a physical spring," Adkins said.

Another criticism of the '05 blockers was that they were too fat and immobile. With a starting five that averaged around 335 pounds per man, the big uglies couldn't seem to get out front on sweeps and screen passes. As a result, most of the linemen have dropped 10 to 20 pounds. Chris Scott reportedly has dropped 40.

"I'm excited about the ways our bodies have changed, including their coach," said Adkins, who has shed considerable poundage himself since last fall. "I'm excited about that. We look like we're leaner. Now we need to continue on that path, through the spring and through the summer."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories