Fulmer wants athletic blockers

There was a time when the majority of Tennessee's offensive line was made up of converted defensive linemen. Kevin Mays, Jason Layman, Cosey Coleman, Spencer Riley, Charles McRae, Fred Weary and Bernard Dafney were among the many who made the switch from shedding blocks to making blocks.

But in recent years, Tennessee has signed more players who were primarily offensive linemen in high school.

Perhaps that's one reason the Vols' offensive line hasn't been as good – or as physical -- as it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps that's one reason coach Phillip Fulmer now says he won't sign many players who are strictly offensive linemen.

Tennessee needs more athletic blockers and the best way to find them is along the front four.

``I'm not going to sign a guy anymore that that's the only place he can play,'' Fulmer said of offensive linemen. ``I think there were a couple of times that happened in the last seven or eight years.''

Michael Munoz was an offensive lineman only, but he was an exception. Guys like Sean Young, Brandon Jefferies, Heath Benedict and Steve Jones didn't or haven't panned out.

``We're going to recruit the great offensive lineman,'' Fulmer said. ``It's pretty obvious on tape who they are. And we're also going to recruit the guy that could play defense but can certainly play offense.''

Why? Because the Vols are looking for blockers who are better athletes.

``This day and age, with all the movement and all the zone blitz and all the pressure, a guy's gotta be able to run on the perimeter, move on his feet and get in front of linebackers or get to a point where we can run a sweep,'' Fulmer said.

Until this year, Tennessee had been a poor screen team for several seasons, in part because offensive linemen weren't athletic enough to make a block in space against a cornerback or linebacker. The Vols stayed away from the sweep for the same reason.

Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, who observed the Vols' offense while sitting out the 2005 season after being fired by Ole Miss, said one of his first priorities was to have the linemen lose weight so they could move better.

This season, the Vols ran screens well but weren't so adept at sweeps. They also weren't able to knock a defense off the line in short-yardage situations.

Mike Stowell, a former All-SEC guard and captain for Tennessee in the early 1990s, said UT must have effective guards to run its offense because of the amount of pulling required to play the position. But this season, UT's tackles – Arron Sears and Eric Young – were much better than the guards – David Ligon and Anthony Parker.

And while Fulmer says Parker is the ``athletic guy you're looking for,'' Parker hasn't had a good season. Neither has Ligon.

Former Tennessee offensive lineman Tim Irwin called the guards the weak links of the offensive line. That's one reason the Vols are on pace to have their worst rushing season since 1964.

Like Fulmer, Cutcliffe said there are some outstanding offensive linemen you would recruit out of high school, but he also looks for defensive lineman that can be moved because most of the time, defensive linemen are better athletes.

``If you're able to sign three or four defensive lineman knowing one or two will move to offense,'' Cutcliffe said, ``it's not a bad ploy.

``But if there's an Arron Sears out there, I'm going to start with that guy because that's what he wants to do. I'm going to get him as a freshman and train him.''

In recruiting linemen, Cutcliffe said it's like the NFL motto.

``You take the best player available,'' Cutcliffe said. ``If there is a defensive lineman that's a better player than the next offensive lineman available, then you're going to recruit the defensive lineman.''

Greg Adkins, UT's offensive line coach, said he looks for three things in a line prospect: Athletic ability, toughness and the capability to learn. He also said you try to project how much he could grow.

``The ability to move is critical in today's game,'' Adkins said.

Once you decide to convert a defensive lineman to offense, Adkins said the learning curve is different for different players. Coleman and Weary made the adjustment quickly. Others have not.

``A guy who has never played offensive line will probably take a little longer to develop because of all the different things that could happen to him,'' Adkins said. ``There are a lot of different variables that go into saying whether you could have a guy ready in a month or three months or six months or a year. It's case by case.''

Adkins likes linemen who have a wrestling background. Scott Wells, Weary and Stowell were all outstanding high school wrestlers.

``Those guys understand leverage, and quite honestly, most of those guys are tough guys, too,'' Adkins said.

``But you don't see a lot of wrestlers out there today. It's amazing. There are very few wrestling programs where kids play football, too.''

One of the few offensive linemen on this team who came to play defense is Vladimir Richard. Adkins said Richard hasn't progressed as rapidly as UT had hoped, but Adkins thinks Richard will eventually be a good guard.

Ramon Foster, who made two starts last year, has played only about 10 snaps a game, Adkins said. Foster can play four positions. Adkins said that versatility might have hindered his progress. More likely, Foster's bulk – he reported to August camp a few points overweight -- has kept him off the field.

``He's one of those guys I've got to get a little bit thinner and a little bit quicker,'' Adkins said.

Adkins chided himself for not playing true freshman Jacques McClendon more this season.

``I'm really happy with his work ethic and progress over the last few weeks,'' Adkins said.

Adkins said he's confident that tackle Chris Scott knows what to do, but after losing some 80 pounds, he's got to get his strength back.

Adkins really likes guard Ramone Johnson, who is redshirting this season. Rather than work with the scout team, he's worked with the varsity this fall.

Signee Darius Myers has worked with the scout team this season. The Vols hope Cody Pope, who sat out for academic reasons, will return in January. The Vols also have a commitment from touted lineman Darrius Sawtelle of Michigan.

Here's a look at a projected depth chart along the offensive line for next season:

Left tackle: Chris Scott, Ramon Foster, Cody Pope

Left guard: Ramone Johnson, Vladimir Richard, Darius Myers

Center: Josh McNeil, Michael Frogg

Right guard: Jacques McClenson, Anthony Parker

Right tackle: Eric Young, Steve Jones, Darrius Sawtelle


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