Blockers blossom

Probably no area of Tennessee's football team entered the 2006 season with less acclaim than the offensive line. Through the first six games, probably no area of the team has been a bigger surprise.

Despite the loss of 2005 starters Albert Toeaina, Cody Douglas, Rob Smith and Richie Gandy, the Vols' new-look blocking front has jelled into a pretty solid unit. Except for a poor showing in Game 3 vs. Florida, the blockers have made improvement on a weekly basis.

"That group is playing really solid right now," head coach Phillip Fulmer said this week. "Each week is a different kind of challenge for them but they've grown and gotten better."

Saturday's game against Alabama will be the line's biggest test since Florida. Still, Fulmer has plenty of confidence in his blockers, especially preseason All-American Arron Sears and fellow tackle Eric Young.

"Our tackles are playing extremely well," the head man said. "Eric Young has really come on. David Ligon has been solid. Josh McNeil has been solid for the most part. Anthony Parker has a chance to be a really good player. He's just not quite as good as I think he should be all the time yet."

The starting five is sound. Now Fulmer is hoping to build some depth behind those guys. He noted that freshman Jacques McClendon "is pushing for playing time, and we need some other guys to do that."

Two players who have been slowed by injuries can help the depth situation significantly once they're close to 100 percent.

"Michael Frogg's ankle is much better, so he's back in the mix to push Josh," Fulmer said. "Ramon Foster's ankle is better and he needs to continue to push for playing time."

Tennessee's linemen have played pretty well to date but, with six SEC tests coming up the next six weeks, they realize they still have plenty to prove.

"We're happy with where we're at as of right now but we'd be a lot happier if we were further down the road, especially in the run game," Ligon said. "Alabama's got a scheme that's fairly difficult. You never know quite what you're going to get."

Tennessee fans can't help but wonder: How would the Florida game have gone if Vol linemen were playing as well then as they are now? Ligon admits he has entertained the same thought.

"You think about that and it comes into your mind, ‘Man, I wish we could play Florida again.' But you can't."

Regardless, Tennessee is a much better team than it was Sept. 16 against Florida, and the improved play of the blockers is a key reason.

"We're a lot better," Ligon said. "It's hard to say exactly what it is. Maybe it's just the game experience. Some guys have seen the true speed of the SEC and now they understand."

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