Blockers, receivers concern Cutcliffe

The concerns this spring for Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe are obvious. He's got to find three receivers to replace Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith. And he's got to find enough offensive linemen to jump start a woeful running game.

``How do you look at our offense and look at left tackle and receiver and say, `Hey, we're a better edition in 2007,''' Cutcliffe said just days before the Vols opened spring practice Thursday. ``Well, the reality is, we're not.''

The Vols will start the spring without two returning line starters – Anthony Parker and Eric Young – and Josh McNeil is limited (knee). Coupled with the loss of All-American left tackle Arron Sears and senior left guard David Ligon, and you you've got concerns.

And how do you replace the combined numbers of Meachem, Swain and Smith: 159 catches for 2,439 yards and 22 touchdowns? Cutcliffe applauded them for making play after play last season.

Against that backdrop, you won't hear Cutcliffe utter the words: ``No worries, mate.''

Cutcliffe's got plenty of worries. It starts with the offensive line, which held up in pass protection but stumbled in run blocking. The Vols averaged less than 110 rushing yards per game for the first time since 1964.

``We have some youth there,'' Cutcliffe said of the line. ``And we didn't feel great about our depth a year ago. That's reality.

``We've got to try to find five. Right now, we don't have five. We've got to help them. We've got to make them better. And we've got to find five and hopefully six and maybe seven or eight.

``There are some guys that need to step up, and they're not doing it, in my opinion, at a fast enough rate.''

Cutcliffe wouldn't name names, but the candidates are Steven Jones, Jacques McClendon, Chris Scott, Ramon Foster, Vlad Richard and Ramone Johnson, a redshirt freshman. True freshman Darris Sawtelle joins the group this spring.

``I'm on a mission when it comes to getting our line at the premium, premium performance level physically,'' Cutcliffe said. ``We've taken every individual and said, `This is what we've got to have happen.'

``I'm anxious to see who is going to step up. I'm going to let them show me. It's not going to be something we talk about. It's going to be something we do.''

Cutcliffe believes the Vols can be as good or better at four of the line positions. McNeil at center, Parker at guard and Young at tackle can improve. Young played well until he tore up his shoulder. Parker had nagging injuries most of the season. McNeil was bothered by a bum knee.

UT can't replace Sears at left tackle, but the Vols can overcome the loss of Ligon if McClendon or Foster emerges.

The situation at receiver is similar. UT needs some young guys to answer the bell.

Last year, Meachem caught 71 passes for a school-record 1298 yards.

Last year, the returning receivers had 26 combined catches for 252 yards and no scores.

``When I look at the tape and see all the plays Meachem and Swain and Smith made,'' Cutcliffe said, ``then I realize the guys stepping in haven't made those plays.''

No, they haven't. But Lucas Taylor, Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe have played meaningful minutes.

``They've done some good things,'' Cutcliffe said. ``Now it's time to show you can do some great things.''

Quintin Hancock showed flashes during preseason scrimmages. And Slick Shelley, beset by injuries, has ability.

``At receiver, it's got to happen and happen quickly,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I'm anxious to see where we begin.''

Cutcliffe understands the magnitude of the challenge facing the offense this spring. He's got arguably the best quarterback in the SEC. He's got a solid trio of running backs. He's set at tight end. But he's got to find blockers and receivers.

``I'll tell you this: I don't expect us to do anything but be better (than a year ago),'' Cutcliffe said. ``I believe we will be better. The guys returning have to be better than they were a year ago and the guys that played behind them have got to come through. That's the way it's always been – you step up when your turn comes.

``Our job as a staff is to try to find a way to help and utilize the abilities we've got. We've got enough ability to win. We've got enough ability to score points. We've just got to put the right people in position to do that.''


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