Pups growing up

Tennessee's 5-1 record and No. 8 ranking in the latest Associated Press poll is a credit to some old dogs who are learning new tricks. It's also a credit to some young pups who are making significant progress.

"The young guys are improving and the older guys are showing the way," head coach Phillip Fulmer says. "This is a fun group of guys."

The "young guys" include redshirt freshman tailbacks LaMarcus Coker and Montario Hardesty, sophomore safety Demetrice Morley, sophomore defensive tackles Demonte Bolden and Walter Fisher, redshirt freshman linebacker Rico McCoy and redshirt freshman center Josh McNeil. All have stepped up their play in recent weeks, helping the Vols put together a three-game winning streak.

Coker assumed the first-team tailback role during Arian Foster's absence. He has rushed for 146, 125 and 57 yards the past three games. Hardesty started Games 3 and 4 but has seen his role diminish a bit now that Foster is back. Still, all three are SEC-caliber rushers.

"I think it's a nice combination," Fulmer notes. "And I'm not excluding in any way Montario Hardesty. In this league you need three backs."

In addition to his work at tailback, Coker is getting some action as a kickoff return man. He popped returns of 40 and 32 yards – each setting up a Vol touchdown – in Saturday night's 51-33 win at Georgia. Fulmer sees Coker getting more opportunities as a return man in the weeks ahead.

"Yeah. Absolutely," the head man says. "That's the first play of offense, and we're absolutely going to keep him there. I like for running backs to be that guy because they're bigger, stronger, can break tackles and they're used to seeing the field."

Fisher, despite two years at junior college, qualifies as another of the "young guys" for Tennessee. He missed the first four games due to injury but saw action at defensive tackle in Games 5 and 6.

"Walter did OK for his first significant snaps there," Fulmer notes. "He has nothing but upside. Whether he can reach the level of being a consistent SEC tackle, we'll have to wait and see. He's behind strength-wise because of surgery and rehab but he gives you some quickness in there that you like."

Morley has assumed the starting spot at free safety since a season-ending injury to cornerback Inquoris Johnson forced some shuffling in the Vol secondary. Morley struggled early but played well vs. Memphis in Game 5 and all right vs. Georgia in Game 6.

"I thought he did OK," Fulmer says. "He made a couple of really nice tackles and played special teams pretty hard. He's getting better with time. That's what you expect from a true sophomore. The more snaps he gets, the better he should be."

McNeil is another relative newcomer to the lineup, starting the past two games at center. He played pretty well Saturday night against a heralded Georgia front four.

"Josh did a good job," Fulmer says. "From a technique standpoint, there's a couple of areas he still needs to improve. But there's nothing wrong with his competitive spirit. As a redshirt freshman, his knowledge of the game will just get better."

The fact Tennessee won handily against Cal (35-18), Marshall (33-7) and Memphis (41-7) enabled the Vol staff to give younger players some meaningful snaps this fall. That should be invaluable with Alabama, South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas looming in the weeks ahead.

"It does help us," Fulmer concedes. "We have 43 freshmen and sophomores. We're a young team. The more snaps Demonte Bolden can get, Walter Fisher can get, Demetrice Morley and Rico McCoy can get, the better off we are.

"We're calling on 'em and we're not going to back off from that. We're building our depth, because you're going to need it during this run."

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