'Close' calls

After a 7-1 start, Tennessee carries a two-game losing streak into Saturday's game at Vanderbilt. One reason is that the Vols haven't made as many plays the past two weekends as they did in their first eight games.

As a result "close" is the word of the week.

"I think it's pretty evident that plays we were making earlier we're not making now," offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. "We're oh-so-close. But I learned a long time ago that close doesn't count except in horse shoes and hand grenades."

Phillip Fulmer touched on the same theme using the same word.

"We were real close (last weekend vs. Arkansas) on a number of passing plays, which would reflect a little timing (issue) with the quarterback," the head man said. "And we had three or four drops, which we hadn't had (previously)."

Backup quarterback Jonathan Crompton completed touchdown passes of 37 and 54 yards in Game 9 vs. LSU, then fired TD tosses of 27 and 39 yards last week vs. the Razorbacks. Still, Cutcliffe and Fulmer believe the return of junior quarterback Erik Ainge after a two-week struggle with ankle problems could provide a lift vs. Vandy. So could the availability of tailbacks LaMarcus Coker and Arian Foster, two more offensive weapons who have had health issues this fall.

"My concern right now is that our timing is off a little," Cutcliffe said. "We've had a lot of missed practice time by a lot of people.... That's where we are right now."

Coker returned to action vs. Arkansas after missing three weeks with a knee strain. Foster has missed time due to an ankle injury and a half-game suspension. Hardesty has been nicked up, too.

"I don't think any of our backs are full speed," Cutcliffe said. "I don't think Arian's been full speed since he injured the ankle. Montario has fought it. He's a tough guy who has fought pain and injury all fall. And LaMarcus has had a number of different things, besides his knee."

Tennessee encountered a minimal number of injuries earlier this year, which Cutcliffe says contributed to the 7-1 start.

"Our missed practice time prior to the season was minimal," he noted. "It was kind of an amazing thing."

Most of the starting 11 on offense have been nursing injuries in recent weeks, however, and Cutcliffe believes that is partly responsible for the near-misses that have cropped up during the two-game losing streak.

"We're getting close and not connecting," he said. "When we had people open we didn't hit 'em. And when we should've had people open they weren't quite open."

Despite UT's drop-off in productivity the past two weeks, the coordinator hasn't lost confidence in his system or his players.

Said Cutcliffe: "I feel good about our scheme and our capabilities."

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