O-line has miles to go

After Tennessee rushed for 216 yards in the season-opener against California's highly touted front four, many were ready to proclaim the Vols' offensive line problems of the past were solved. Not former Tennessee offensive lineman Mike Stowell.

Stowell gave the line a good grade overall. He liked the pass protection. But he saw the lack of a push at times against Cal. He didn't think the line was overly physical.

I agreed with Stowell. While it's hard to argue with 216 rushing yards, Montario Hardesty got 43 on his own and another 59 came on two time-consuming fourth-quarter drives when the game was all but over.

I saw more concern when Tennessee running backs rushed for only 95 yards on 27 carries – 3.5 yards per attempt -- against an outmanned Air Force defensive line that averaged less than 270 pounds across the front.

But Tennessee coaches were confident. When I suggested Tennessee's pass protection was better than its run blocking through two games, line coach Greg Adkins disagreed: ``I wouldn't say that.''

Coach Phillip Fulmer told Nashville radio personality Mark Howard that he wasn't ``concerned'' with UT's offensive line heading into the Florida game.

I was. I knew Tennessee would have a tough time running against Florida. I knew the Gators had a better front four than Cal. I said if Tennessee could get 100 rushing yards rushing and hold Florida under 100, the Vols would win.

In retrospect, if UT had rushed for 50 it might have beaten Florida.

I didn't expect Florida's defensive front to manhandle UT the way it did.

Tennessee's stat line was an embarrassment: Minus 11 yards rushing, 19 carries for 16 yards among the running backs, longest run of 5 yards.

Tennessee averaged a puny 128 rushing yards per game last season.

Tennessee is averaging a paltry 94.7 rushing yards per game – 2.96 per carry - this season. That ranks No. 93 in the nation in rushing. It ranks No. 10 in the SEC in rushing. It has to rankle Fulmer, once a terrific O-line coach who has watched his run blockers digress almost each season since 1999.

Nothing against past or present company, I still contend Fulmer should be his own offensive line coach. Conceding that won't happen, you wonder the direction he'll take.

Can an offensive line suddenly jell? Will Eric Young blossom at right tackle? Can Michael Frogg hold his own against quality SEC defensive tackles? Is Anthony Parker the answer at right guard? Is David Ligon too nice to play left guard? Is Arron Sears, a Playboy All-American, overrated? Is there anyone on the bench capable of performing better than the starters?

In the words of Bill Parcells: ``You are what you are.''

Is Tennessee's line no better than the one we saw against Florida? Or can it regroup and play more like the one against Cal?

Tennessee has a lot of questions to answer between now and the Georgia game on Oct. 7. The Vols' offensive line should fare well against Marshall and the unorthodox style of defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn at Memphis. But the defensive fronts of Georgia and LSU (Nov. 4) are in the same class as Florida's. And Alabama (Oct. 21) is no picnic.

David Cutcliffe, Tennessee's offensive coordinator, admitted Tennessee had more trouble running against Florida than he anticipated. You could tell that by his play selection. On 11 first-down calls in the first half, he called eight pass plays. The Vols completed five for 76 yards. Three runs got 4 yards. In the second half, Cutcliffe ran on eight of the first nine first-down calls and gained just 9 rushing yards.

For the game, UT had 11 first-down runs for 13 yards and completed 10 of 13 passes for 129 yards with one sack and one interception.

``Minus 11 yards, that's tough,'' Cutcliffe said. ``That's a nightmare for you, kind of living your worst dreams. That's not Tennessee football. That falls directly on me. I've got to put our guys in position to be successful. We will do that. We've got to do that.''

Asked why he went to the run on first down in the second half, Cutcliffe said: ``We made the decision at halftime we needed to establish some balance and some rhythm. I knew going in we might be 70 percent throw on first down, if not higher.

``But in the second half, we made the decision we better let our guys hit them. I felt like we were on our heels a little bit. I felt like it helped a little, even though we weren't making a lot of yards.

``Now, we've got to find our niche and see where we are.''

It was clear that Florida's front four was superior to UT's offensive line. And when the Vols' run game went dormant, the Gators stormed through the line like it was a jail break.

``They have a nice scheme,'' Cutcliffe said after the Vols gained 210 total yards, 7 more than last year against Florida. ``Lot of edge pressure, lot of movement inside. We thought we had some good answers. We went in with four or five answers for their schemes. We just didn't get done what we thought we could.''

Despite the line meltdown, Cutcliffe was proud of quarterback Erik Ainge, who was 17 of 32 for 183 yards and was sacked twice. He was intercepted twice, one on UT's last offensive play on a fourth-and-16.

``I thought his poise was good,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I never felt at any time he was flustered or rattled.''

That's good news because based on UT's inability to run against a quality front four, Ainge will be asked to make more plays.

If he doesn't, the Vols' offense will be in trouble against the likes of Georgia and Alabama and LSU.


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