Tougher Tennessee

The Tennessee Volunteers ranked dead last among the 12 Southeastern Conference teams in fourth-down conversions last fall, successfully converting on just five of 17 attempts for 29.4 percent. By comparison, LSU converted on eight of 11 fourth-down tries for 72.7 percent.

Several reasons could be offered to explain Tennessee's fourth-down futility but here's one that I believe has considerable merit: When the 2005 Vols needed a yard to sustain a drive, their offensive line was unable to get enough of a surge for the ball-carrier to pick up that yard.

This shortcoming wasn't just evident on fourth-and-one situations, though. It showed up several times on third-and-one, third-and-two or third-and-three. When the Vols desperately needed a little push from the blocking front, they rarely got it. The offense simply wasn't physical enough to line up and say, "Here we come. Try and stop us."

Bottom line: Tennessee was soft. As a result, head coach Phillip Fulmer spent a lot of time and energy trying to make the offensive players tougher – mentally and physically – during spring practice. The head man says the Vols had 737 live scrimmage snaps last March and April. Improving the team's toughness and physicality will continue to be a priority this preseason.

"I think we can say the spring was successful in accomplishing our goal of changing an attitude about practice habits and work ethic and getting ourselves back into a mode of being a physical football team," Fulmer said. "And our summer has been very productive."

The offensive line will have three new starters but, based on what he saw in spring practice, Fulmer believes the 2006 blocking front will offset its lack of experience with an abundance of toughness and physicality.

"I think those kids have a toughness about them coming out of spring practice," he said. "We'll find the right combination of guys…. We'll find five guys who'll get in there, fight and scratch and be good offensive linemen."

Fulmer thinks he already has identified three such players – Arron Sears, David Ligon and Eric Young. That leaves him needing to identify two more starters and a couple of dependable backups.

"Who that other two or three guys is going to be, we'll see," the coach said. "Anthony Parker, Josh McNeil, Michael Frogg and Ramon Foster are in that mix."

Tennessee signed some outstanding offensive line prospects last February. Three of these – Jacques McClendon, Ramone Johnson and Darius Myers – could see action as true freshmen.

"There are some real challenges with depth," Fulmer noted. "Some young guys will have a chance to push themselves into the mix if some other guys don't pick it up a level."

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