The importance of success in the red zone was vividly demonstrated in what were the two most definitive possessions of Tennessee's 2001 season. They occurred just a week apart; the first was against Florida in Gainesville and the second was against LSU in the Georgia Dome.
At The Swamp Travis Stephens had put Tennessee in business inside the 10 via a remarkable 68-yard run with the Vols leading 27-26 and under 11 minutes remaining. He then went to the sidelines for a blow and UT went to its power running game and pounded the middle on a pair of runs with 230-pound freshman Jabari "J-Train" Davis, who reached the 1. On third down, despite being on the road with an SEC title shot on the line, I doubt there was anyone watching who believed Florida was going to stop Davis on third down. Nobody was wrong, as Davis catapulted into the end zone with the greatest of ease for what turned out to be the winning touchdown. With the game on the line, Tennessee was able to dictate terms to the Gators because it owned the line of scrimmage.
The next week in the SEC Championship game against LSU, Tennessee saw a 17-7 lead vanish as the Tigers went on a 17-0 run to take a 24-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. Although the Vols were up a touchdown going into the second half, they had yet to establish the run and couldn't control the ball or tempo. With 10:15 remaining in the game, UT moved the ball to LSU 4 using a shotgun formation and spread offense with a single blocking back and what it terms the "hurry hustle" mode of quick huddles.
Once Tennessee reached the 4 with a first and goal, the Vols elected to remain in the shotgun and didn't even pose the threat of a run. Their best scoring chance came on first down when Washington broke open on a route where he drove hard to the slant, absorbed a chuck and pivoted back to the outside.Clausen's pass appeared to be overthrown, but upon closer examination, he actually released the ball before Washington came out of his break.
It seemed as though Clausen expected Washington to take an angle more toward the corner, whereas Washington flattened the route toward the sideline. Against Notre Dame, Donte Stallworth ran the same route and caught an 18-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. Of course, it helped that he had 14 additional yards to work with.
Regardless of what went wrong, the pass was incomplete as were the next two. On third down, LSU sent its front four along along with three blitzers in an all-out assault on the QB. Clausen was forced into a quick throw and the Vols settled for the field goal. They never had another scoring opportunity.
I'm not questioning Tennessee's strategy in this situation because LSU had clearly shut down the run, and the Vols moved the ball 70 yards on the drive using nothing but the pass. The point is: the closer you get to the goal line the harder it is to complete passes, particularly without a running threat. The advantage goes to the defense because of limited space and the minute margin for error. The incompletion on first down was an excellent example of how sharp execution has to be in the passing game to overcome the problems imposed by finite space. Tennessee chose to run three timing patterns out of the shotgun which increased the degree of difficulty.
On third down against Florida, Tennessee made no secret of its intent and the Gators could do nothing to stop them. On third down against LSU, Tennessee made no secret of its intent, but the Tigers dictated the terms. By comparison, LSU scored three touchdowns in the red zone on the ground.
The team that controls the ground, controls the game.
Certainly, there are exceptions to that rule as in the case of a one-side turnover ratio or a meltdown of the kicking game, but all things being even remotely equal, 250 yards on the ground is worth more than 400 yards through the air. The object of the game is to score more points not gain more yards and, as mentioned earlier, the ground is the surest path to victory.
While you can normally count on Tennessee having a strong running game, it is simply the more significant part of a balanced attack. Ideally Coach Fulmer would probably like 200 yards on the ground and 300 through the air, if not 250/250, to produce five offensive touchdowns.
Although Stephens led the SEC in rushing last season, Tennessee finished fifth in the conference in rushing with an average of 154 yards per game. There were some spotty performances down the stretch i.e. the second LSU encounter along with Notre Dame and South Carolina. Since the O-line was good enough to open space for the compact Stephens to set a school record for a single season, some of UT's problems with consistency on the ground last season were due to the lack of a second tailback to complement Stephens slashing style.
Additionally, over the course of the season,Stephens appeared to wear down at times and showed signs of fatigue in the SEC championship game. In final analysis, Stevens was a tough-minded, big-play tailback better suited for the open field than a grind-it-out attack.
You see part of having a balanced offensive attack is a balanced running game. A power back punishes a defense and takes away its will, whereas a speed back takes advantage of over pursuit by the defense and slices it up. You need both type of backs to succeed at the highest level. Example: In 1989 the Vols unleashed Chuck Webb and Reggie Cobb on the SEC. In 1993 Tennessee was able to use a tailback trio of James Stewart, Aaron Hayden and Charlie Garner to maximize the potential of its running game, test a defense's depth and exploit its weaknesses. In 1998, the rushing duties were split between Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry and Stephens. When Lewis went down against Auburn, the Vols went on with Stephens and Henry without breaking stride.
This year UT has the same potential with running backs Davis, Cedric Houston, Derrick Tinsley and incoming freshman Gerald Riggs. It also has the depth in the offensive line it lacked last year after Michael Munoz and Jason Respert went down with injuries.
Both Munoz and Respert will return this year and they represent the most talented blockers the Vols have in their outstanding O-line stable. The lines will be further fortified by four incoming freshmen who have all-SEC potential. Included in this group are Rob Smith, Brandon Jefferies, Heath Benedict and Cody Douglas. There is also redshirt freshmen Richie Gandy, 6-5, 295, and transfer Chuck Prugh, 6-3, 300. That's eight players that weren't available for most of last season that will be this year. No doubt, Munoz and Respert, both projected starters, will have the most immediate impact while Gandy, Smith and Jefferies are the most likely newcomers to make a name for themselves at the collegiate level. Douglas, 6-6, 320, with a 440-pound bench press also has the size and strength to earn early playing time, and the coaches like what they've seen of Prugh at center.
Smith is a particularly intriguing prospect. At 6-41/4, 305, he is already pressing an eye-popping 470 pounds. He can perform eight reps of 405 pounds and at least 31 reps of 225 pounds. He can currently reach that rep total after six sets of other lifts and believes he can get 34 reps if fresh. Reggie Coleman, who as drafted in the middle rounds this year, only did 17 reps with 225 at UT's Pro Day combine. Smith is also an excellent technician who only needs to learn the offense to make a contribution at guard or, perhaps, center.
This infusion of first-rate talent will be added to existing contributors up front like two-year starter Scott Wells, an underrated center, and two-year-plus starter, fifth-year senior Will Ofenheusle is at strong tackle. Remember, Ofenheusle, 6-8, 305, was a high school all-American who chose Tennessee over Florida State. Then there is the versatile Anthony Herrera who can play guard or tackle, and Chavis Smith, a former D-lineman who came on like gangbusters late last season.
With this type of talent in Tennessee's treasure trove, it's a little surprising that the Vols aren't rated among the top offensive lines in the SEC. The same is true for the national preseason lists on which the Vols are conspicuously absent. It appears the makers of these preseason all-star teams are simply looking at Tennessee's production last season against the loss of two starters in Coleman and Fred Weary, where teams like Alabama and Georgia return their units virtually intact. Also, it's difficult to ascribe all-star status to players, like Respert and Munoz, that haven't played in a year. The same concept applies to the incoming freshmen three of whom are Parade All-Americans.
Of course none of that will matter when the Vols take the field this fall. Munoz reported feeling better physically than he did as a freshman when he started and earned rookie All-American honors. Respert may be the perfect guard in terms of size and ability, and he showed that early last season. In fact, Respert could well have been playing better than anybody UT had up front before he was lost to injury.
There are more highly rated offensive lines in the league and nation, but I seriously doubt there's any Coach Fulmer would trade for. This current crop of UT linemen were handpicked and diligently courted to come to Tennessee. They may represent the best and the brightest Fulmer has assembled during his decade-long reign as head coach. Before the year is finished, there will be little doubt about their effectiveness as a unit and the preseason lists will on serve as inspiration for those slighted, and a source of amusement for Big Orange fans.
Just like the defenses that will be worn down play by play by UT's front five this season, so will the critics, eventually, be won over.
In the third part of this series, we will look at how this collection of talent can come together with a bevy of big-time backs to comprise an offensive juggernaut . We'll also look at the critical roles the tight end and fullback play in Tennessee's rushing attack and what we might expect from those positions this year.