Center a top priority for UT

Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe has asked most of the offensive linemen to lose some weight. He wants more mobile, more athletic guards and tackles who can run and block in space and have stamina in the fourth quarter. But there is one other thing he really wants.

A bonafide center.

Cutcliffe believes a solid center is the foundation for a good offensive line. He had two outstanding centers at Ole Miss in Matt Luke and Chris Spencer, a first-round NFL draft choice.

Cutcliffe had Spencer Riley on Tennessee's national championship team.

He'll tell you Peyton Manning's best friend on the UT team was his center, Trey Teague. Andy Kelly had a close relationship with John Fisher.

It's also an important position to head coach Phillip Fulmer.

``The center, to me, is a special guy,'' Fulmer said. ``Every down, he's got his hand on the ball, he's in the middle of everything out there. He's gonna make calls as far as fronts and changes and protections. He's always gonna see, in our league, good players in front of him, whether it's a nose guard or a linebacker we have to neutralize.

``That person has to have a certain amount of physical toughness and mental toughness and athletic ability to anchor the middle part of the line. If we don't get a good snap from center, it could make the difference in the ballgame. If you don't have a good start of the play from the center position, then you really don't have anything.

``I think it's very, very important to us (to have a quality center).''

David Ligon, a fifth-year senior, is the likely prospect. Ligon came to UT as a defensive lineman, moved to offensive tackle and guard, and was switched to center out of necessity. He made four starts last year. He's not a natural center.

Michael Frogg, a walk-on from Kingston, ended the spring as the No. 1 center. Frogg can also play guard.

Josh McNeil, a redshirt freshman, is a natural center. McNeil, whose older brother started at Mississippi State, was a prep All-American, but he didn't play last year because he needed to get stronger. He has bulked up to 290. Tennessee would love for McNeil to win the center job, which would allow Ligon to move to guard, helping solidify the line.

``He's an outstanding talent,'' Fulmer said of McNeil.

Fulmer said recently that there's not an SEC team that has a better trio of offensive linemen than All-American Arron Sears, tackle Eric Young and Ligon. If McNeil takes over at center, that would leave the Vols with only one guard spot to fill. Anthony Parker, Ramon Foster and Frogg would be the main candidates.

Fulmer is more optimistic about the line than most.

``Those guys have to come a long way for us to be in the championship mix,'' Fulmer said. ``Do I think they're capable? Absolutely. Arron Sears is as good as anybody in the conference. Eric Young is as good as any offensive lineman in the conference. We have some talented guys that have to play up to their ability. We're leaner and certainly a lot tougher than we were at any point last year.

``I'd love it if (guard) Rob Smith (who turned pro early) had stayed and played. That would have given us a real anchor. But Sears and Ligon can be anchors to build around. I'm encouraged about them.''


Fulmer isn't ready to make safety Demetrice Morley a two-way player.

``That's probably down the road a little bit,'' Fulmer said. ``The first thing Demetrice has to do is learn to play his position at safety and nickel back. He's not as consistent as he needs to be. He's one of those guys that needs to be on the field every down on defense, no question, because he can make plays.

``But right now, he's one of those guys that if you're not careful, he will give up an easy play to the offense by being in the wrong place.''

Peyton Manning, in Knoxville last month for his golf tournament, said the most impressive player he passed to during workouts was Morley.

Fulmer said Morley will get some snaps at receiver as soon as UT is comfortable that Morley knows his defensive assignments.

``I know we need to get his hands on the ball, whether it's a kickoff return, a punt return or as a receiver to run a reverse,'' Fulmer said. ``We could put him at tailback and toss him the ball and see what happens.''

Fulmer said another potential two-way player is receiver Lucas Taylor, who could play in the secondary.


Fulmer said he is concerned about how his top three tailbacks will respond come August, since each missed spring ball because of injury. But he's optimistic Arian Foster will be ready to pick up where he left off, averaging almost 150 yards in his five starts.

Fulmer's biggest worry is Montario Hardesty, who suffered a torn ACL in September, then had surgery on his other knee in the spring.

``You know what I think of Montario Hardesty,'' Fulmer said. ``His character, his toughness. I can't wait to see him with the football. If you saw him in the sand pit (two weeks ago) you wouldn't have any concerns because he was out there doing everything.''

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