"I think we've played better there than most people thought we would coming in," Phillip Fulmer said. "But I still think there's a level of play we haven't reached yet from a consistency standpoint."
Since Arian Foster averaged 148 yards per game in five late-season starts last fall and quarterback Erik Ainge was coming off a nightmarish 2005 season, Tennessee projected to be a run-oriented team in '06. Opposing defenses have responded accordingly.
"People have loaded up to stop the run and haven't been afraid to play man to man," Fulmer noted. "At times we've made 'em pay for that."
Indeed. But when Tennessee's passing attack is out of sync or when the opponent has excellent cover corners – as Bama and Carolina do – the Vol offense tends to stall. That puts added pressure on a ground attack that has not been productive lately.
"We're still playing with a redshirt freshman center," Fulmer said, referring to rugged but inexperienced Josh McNeil. "He's learning as we go along."
McNeil isn't the only inexperienced player in Tennessee's blocking front. Entering the 2006 season David Ligon had made four career starts, Eric Young two and Anthony Parker one. Only senior Arron Sears (24 career starts) qualified as a proven player. Perhaps some growing pains were inevitable.
"They've been good at times," Fulmer said. "I just want more consistency and more physical play from them."
Since cohesion is crucial to offensive line play, the Vol linemen should get better the longer they play together.
"Those five guys have to play as one," Fulmer said. "It can't be four guys getting it done and one not. A wrong step here or there can make a big difference. I just want us to finish better and be more consistent."
Although the head man is determined to upgrade Tennessee's run blocking, he can't afford to overlook the pass protection this week. Quarterback Erik Ainge has a sprained ankle heading into Saturday's game with an LSU team that puts tremendous pressure on the passer.
"Their pass rush is definitely a concern," Fulmer said.
So is LSU's run defense, its passing attack and its ground game. In short, the Tigers (6-2 overall, 2-2 SEC) are probably the most talented team in the SEC. Except for close losses to top-10 foes Auburn and Florida, they have dominated their opposition.
"We'll have to play our best football of the year this week," Fulmer said. "This will be our toughest test in a long time."