That's not a news flash considering Fulmer himself was an all-SEC offensive lineman, who became one of the country's outstanding line coaches, however it does underscore a fundamental truth of football and is perhaps the best barometer of how successful UT will be this fall.
Let's assume for a moment that Tennessee's only strength was the offensive line. Pretend UT is only average at every other essential position or unit. (I know it's a stretch, but bear with me). The question is: how could the Vols compete in a speed conference like the SEC with nothing more than an outstanding offensive line and an average everything else?
Well it wouldn't be easy, but it just might be easier than trying to succeed with strength across the board and a sub-standard offensive line. (Note that I didn't say it would be as exciting.)
With an outstanding offensive line you should be able to control the ball, drain the clock, maintain favorable field position and wear down the opposing defense — especially in a speed conference.
You accomplish these objectives by straight dives into a defensive front rocked back on its heels by the line's forward surge; slamming backs between the tackles like swinging a wrecking ball into a concrete wall. Eventually, no matter how well built, the structure can't take the stress and begins to crumble. And, yes, that analogy is simply a spin on Fulmer's favorite catch phrase: "Pound the Rock."
The theory says that once you establish the run, you place all the pressure on the defense to plug the leak. That may mean shifting the personnel load, utilizing run blitzes or digging into the depth chart. Each solution has drawbacks and may actually cause more problems than it eliminates. It's a little like death by a thousand cuts compared to having your throat slit.
Anytime you get safeties consistently involved in run support, you run the risk of getting beaten deep through the air, particularly off play-action. Attempting to shift the stress to your secondary translates to leaving each DB locked up in man coverage or running some type of loose zone, like a three-deep. Either way, it allows the offense to isolate and exploit the best match up. The downside of that solution is further magnified by the fact that a defensive front battered by, and braced for, the run is going to have a difficult time getting pressure on the passer. And if you give an average SEC receiver and an average SEC quarterback enough time to work against man coverage, they will eventually beat the best of DBs. If you doubt this assertion, look at the success such varying offensive forces as Florida and Arkansas had against Tennessee going to max-protection passing games in their 1998 and 1999 encounters.
The bottom line is that if you can't stop the run, you can't stop first downs and you can't prevent touchdowns. You can't rest your defense and you place an unbearable load on your offense to keep pace. Not only does the offense have to play from behind, it also has the task of trying to find its rhythm while rarely on the field.
The physical and strategic disadvantages are only part of the toll a team pays for its inability to stop the run. The psychological impact is a particularly debilitating. There's nothing more demoralizing for a defense than having an opponent run the ball right down it's throat. A smash-mouth offense takes away your aggression and puts you into a defensive mode. It forces you out of your base front and into alignments or stunts you may not be comfortable with. It virtually reduces the game of football to its raw essence, and forces each player being beaten one-on-one to examine his manhood. Suffice it to say, that's a process better suited for quiet reflection than the maelstrom of the gridiron.
In addition to taking the heart out of the defense, a dominate running game pays across-the-board dividends. We've already covered how it enhances the passing game, but it also benefits special teams by providing favorable field position. This is a plus for the defense, too. Additionally, it keeps the defense well rested and allows it to take an attack mode while the opposing offense is forced to be more careful because of bad field position.
Tennessee emphasizes it offensive line through three line coaches that are at the top of their profession. By having Mike Barry and Jimmy Ray Stephens split duties under the direction of Fulmer, any O-line prospect that signs with Tennessee is assured of having more individual attention from a master teacher. UT's reputation for consistently producing offensive line prospects for the NFL is another huge attraction for the nation's best linemen. These were the factors for choosing Tennessee most often mentioned in 2000 when the Vols landed three of the nation's top eight line prospects — Michael Munoz, Jason Respert and Sean Young. That familiar refrain was repeated this year when the Vols signed Parade All-Americans Heath Benedict, Rob Smith and Brandon Jefferies. Ditto for Texas behemoth Cody Douglas.
Given that type of steady stream of elite offensive linemen, is there any surprise Tennessee signs so many great skill players at running back and quarterback? In my personal conversation with runners and passers, that's the No. 1 reason given for signing with Tennessee.
An explosive offense energizes fans, inspires sportswriters and enthralls TV executives. It builds up attendance, stirs up headlines and drives up Nielson numbers. Is it just coincidental that Florida State and Florida boast better TV ratings than Penn State and Michigan? Sure the Nitany Lions and Wolverines have larger broadcast markets but, generally, they don't play a style as exciting as the Gators and Seminoles, and they don't draw as well in comparable national telecasts.
It stands to reason that elite athletes are attracted to high-profile football programs featuring powerful offenses. Of course not all those athletes are going to end up on the offensive side of the football. As a consequence, teams like Tennessee have a surplus of athletes that end up on defense. UT's current secondary features two starters — Jabari Greer and Rashad Baker — that came in as wide receivers. Even Julian Battle played more wide receiver in junior college than he played cornerback. Then there's key reserve Mark Jones, who came to Tennessee rated as one of the best offensive players in the country. By the way, Jones is a native of Pennsylvania who passed up Penn State.
Other key Big Orange defensive players with offensive backgrounds include Edward Kendrick and Eddie Moore. Then there's Alabama player of the year Jason Allen, who came in at mid-semester as a top-flight offensive prospect, but was switched to defense and has a bright future as a linebacker or in the secondary. Another Alabama native, Corey Larkins, ran two touchdowns in the 2001 season opener against Syracuse, but was later moved to cornerback where his speed and quickness will fortify the Vols' pass defense. Don't be surprised if another one of UT's running backs isn't moved to defense this season, or next.
In addition to the athletes Tennessee's offense provides, it also allows the defense to play a pressure, attacking brand of football. That, in turn draws outstanding defensive prospects who want to feature their talents in the most favorable light. High school standouts such as Kevin Simon, Kevin Burnett and Jonathan Mapu came from as far away as California and Hawaii to experience the Vols take-no-prisoners approach to defense.
The bottom line: Tennessee is a football program built on the formidable strength and impeccable reputation of its offensive line, and the Vols may have more overall talent now in the O-line than at anytime in Fulmer's tenure as head coach. I realize that the preseason all-conference and all-American teams don't reflect that fact, but there are good reasons UT's front five is being overlooked. That won't be the case when the post season all-star squads are selected.
I'll take up that matter in tomorrow's part two of this in-depth series and we'll break down this year's O-line personnel and discuss how they might come together as a unit to make the Vols a national-title contender.