Fulmer says '05 team more talented

With an Outback Bowl victory over Penn State, Tennessee has a chance to double last season's win total. Two Vols made the Associated Press All-America team: tackle Arron Sears and receiver Robert Meachem. Seven UT players made All-SEC first or second team.

No doubt, Tennessee had some skilled players.

Yet, coach Phillip Fulmer made a revealing comment about his team.

``This is not as talented a team as last year,'' Fulmer said.

And you know what? He's right.

Yes, these Vols are 9-3 and lost to three top 12 teams. But last year's 5-6 squad had better personnel in several areas.

Last year's offensive line was clearly more talented, with Rob Smith, Cody Douglas and Albert Toeiana.

The defensive line was better, also, with tackle Jesse Mahelona, a healthy Justin Harrell and ends Parys Haralson and Jason Hall.

Last year's team had three multiyear starters at linebacker in Kevin Simon, Omar Gaither and Jason Mitchell. Last year's team also had receivers C.J. Fayton and Chris Hannon.

So how did Tennessee win four more regular season games in 2006?

In a word: Coaching.

In another word: Attitude.

The 2005 team was not well coached.

By contrast, the 2006 team was well coached.

Fulmer said attitude is the ``best thing'' about this year's team.

So is David Cutcliffe, the offensive coordinator hired to replace Randy Sanders. Cutcliffe did a heck of a makeover job with the offense, turning Erik Ainge into an outstanding quarterback and averaging 11 more points per game.

``We pushed and pulled and kicked them in the rear to get things where they needed to be,'' Fulmer said of the turnaround. ``And we had an infusion of new coaches.''

That infusion was on offense. Each position coach was different in 2006 than it was in 2005.

The offensive production helped overcome a porous defense that allowed 19.5 points per game, 143.7 rushing yards per game and a 42 percent rate on third-down conversions.

It was a defense that lost six of its starting front seven from a year ago, then lost, in September, its best defensive lineman (Harrell) and its best cover corner (Inky Johnson) to injury.

It was also a defense that recorded only 17 sacks – the lowest figure since John Chavis became defensive coordinator in 1995.

``That's not us,'' Fulmer said of the 17 sacks. ``That's not us.''

Fulmer said the defense would have had a completely different look with a healthy Harrell and Tony McDaniel at defensive tackle. McDaniel announced in January he was returning, then opted for the NFL.

``It's been a challenge for Coach Chavis and the defensive staff,'' Fulmer said. ``We all held together pretty darn good to squeeze out nine wins.''

Several defensive players didn't emerge as Fulmer had hoped, particularly defensive ends Antonio Reynolds and Robert Ayers.

``I thought Reynolds would have a bigger year,'' Fulmer said. ``He did less than what I expected.''

Reynolds, a junior, had only 31 tackles and one sack.

``Ayers could be a difference maker,'' Fulmer said. ``He's had flashes. Basically, his practice habits are not what they need to be. That's prevented him from being in the game more.''

Ayers, a sophomore, had 23 tackles and one sack this season.

UT's other defensive end starter, Xavier Mitchell, had 37 tackles and four sacks.

By comparison, last season, Haralson and Hall combined for 96 tackles, 15.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles behind the line.

Noting the lack of production from the defensive ends, Fulmer said: ``We've got to address that in recruiting. We're not where we need to be.''

Tennessee wasn't where it needed to be in several areas. It didn't run the ball well. It didn't stop the run well. It wasn't good enough at the line of scrimmage to be an SEC championship caliber team.

So, squeezing nine wins out of this season was a nice accomplishment.

A 10-win season would qualify as overachieving.


The Tennessee-Penn State series is tied at 2-2. The Nittany Lions have won both bowl games. The Vols won two regular-season games, both played in Neyland Stadium.

And there is a story behind that.

When the teams agreed to play in 1971 and 1972, the contract called for Tennessee to host the first game and the second to be played at night.

Since neither team had lights, Penn State coach Joe Paterno assumed the second game likely would be played at a neutral site.

But after the 1971 season, then-UT athletic director Bob Woodruff had lights installed at Neyland Stadium.

So, when it came time to play at night, the site, naturally, was Knoxville.

``A city slicker got snookered,'' Paterno said.

The 12th-ranked Vols upset No. 5 Penn State 31-11 on Dec. 4, 1971 to end the regular season. The Vols' 1972 home opener was against Penn State on Sept. 16. No. 7 UT beat No. 6 Penn State 28-21.

It appears to be the only time in UT history the Vols played the same opponent in back-to-back home games.

By the way, UT's first night game was at LSU in 1944.


With Catholic High School prospect Harrison Smith leaning to Notre Dame, the issue of academics has come into play.

Notre Dame is certainly a fine academic institution, but UT is no slouch.

According to a high school guidance counselor, the average ACT score for an incoming freshman in 2005 was 25.8. The average grade-point average in core classes was 3.58.

EXTRA POINTS: Tennessee's bowl record is 24-21. Penn State's is 24-12-2. … Penn State's enrollment is 42,914, 17,000 more than UT's. … Paterno said he is looking forward to seeing Tennessee in Tampa: ``I can hardly wait ‘til I hear Rocky Mountain.'' That's Rocky Top, coach.

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