Vol offense faces many questions

A question mark surrounds each area of Tennessee's offense this season.

Quarterback Erik Ainge must prove he can play well under duress.

The wide receivers must prove they can make big plays.

The running backs must prove they are durable.

The offensive line must prove it can neutralize SEC defenses.

So which of these is the most important?

Let's examine.

Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said Ainge made great strides during spring practice, that he was comfortable and coachable and had a good knowledge of the system. The more Ainge knows, the more confident he will be. But he still has to do it in a game.

Ainge is not a consistently accurate passer. I don't expect him to become a 65 percent passer. But he can complete 55 to 60 percent of his throws.

The wide receivers have underachieved for years. They have dropped too many passes. They have not blocked well. They haven't run good routes. They haven't been in shape. They haven't been dependable.

But during the spring, they blocked, they didn't drop as many passes, they ran better routes. They showed they are ready to compete – and maybe win – at an SEC level.

The top three running backs – Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker – were injured and didn't participate at all, or only briefly, in the spring.

Foster averaged 148.5 yards in his five starts for the injured Gerald Riggs Jr. He had shoulder and knee surgery in the offseason but should be 100 percent this fall.

Hardesty suffered a torn ACL and had surgery in October. He had a hamstring tendon graft that accelerated his progress and should have him close to 100 percent this fall. Several UT coaches felt he was ahead of Foster at the time of Hardesty's injury.

Coker showed flashes. Ja'Kouri Williams and David Yancey also have ability.

That leaves the offensive line. Arron Sears might be the best offensive linemen in the SEC. He is a potential first-round draft pick who can play tackle or guard.

David Ligon figures to start at center with Eric Young at right tackle and Ramon Foster and Anthony Parker at the guards.

Sears didn't play much in scrimmages, resting a sore knee. Ligon split time at center and guard. Parker also played guard and center. Foster needs to lose about 20 pounds. Young has yet to play to his potential.

Because it can dictate how everyone else performs, the play of UT's line is the most critical area of the offense.

If the line doesn't pass protect, the passing game is in trouble. Ainge hasn't proven he can play when pressured. He needs time to make decisions, time to throw. If he's being harassed when he drops back, he won't be productive. He's not good enough to carry an offense without some help, particularly up front.

If Ainge is constantly under siege, the receivers won't get a chance to display their skills. If the line can't protect, Cutcliffe will have to resort to a controlled, underneath passing game that will eventually become easy to defend.

The running backs will be fine, as long as they have a semblance of a chance. Foster can make the first guy miss, he runs with great vision and body lean and he's quick enough to elude defenders. Hardesty is a gifted back. Coker can shake and bake.

But you won't succeed on the ground in the SEC unless you have a decent line and a passing game to keep defenses honest.

That's why the burden for this year's offense lies with the line.

SWAIN'S KNEE STILL A CONCERN

The laundry list of offseason surgeries doesn't compare this spring to last spring. But UT still has a few concerns.

Receiver Jayson Swain had his knee scoped for the second time in nine months and there are no assurances he'll be 100 percent this fall. He was frustrated by his knee continuing to swell up.

Receiver Slick Shelley, who caught Cutcliffe's eye early in the spring, had his knee scoped midway through spring ball. He should recover fine. He's fast but hasn't played fast because he's still learning the system.

Defensive end Walter Fisher has yet to have shoulder surgery. The quicker the better because you want him back by August. Surgery has been delayed to work around his class schedule.

Defensive end Vladimir Richard had surgery for a broken leg. He should be ready this fall.

FULMER THOUGHT UT COULD BE LIKE AUBURN

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer blamed coaching, injuries, the schedule and quarterback play for the Vols' 5-6 season when he spoke recently at a Big Orange Caravan stop in Huntsville, Ala.

And he blamed himself for being too optimistic. Why the rosy outlook?

``I really thought we had a chance to have the same kind of year Auburn had the year before,'' Fulmer said. ``And I didn't want to have happen to us what happened to them – win all our games and not get to play for a (national) championship. So I played the lead-horse role. It was out of my character. I got the cart way before the horse, the way it turned out.''

Fulmer made one promise: He won't be so optimistic again, not publicly.


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