'Uphill challenge'

The practice surface at Haslam Field appears flat, yet Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer says his Volunteers face "an uphill challenge" in their quest to develop a quality rushing attack this spring.

"You've got two tailbacks who have played a lot of football in this league," Fulmer said, referring to Arian Foster and LaMarcus Coker, "but the two best offensive linemen won't be there."

Since returning starters Eric Young (right tackle) and Anthony Parker (right guard) are hampered by injuries, developing a cohesive blocking front will be difficult. With UT coming off its least productive rushing season since 1964, that's troubling. The Vols averaged just 3.7 yards per carry last fall and a mere 108 rushing yards per game.

"We didn't rush the football nearly like we were capable of last year. That's the down side," Fulmer said. "The plus side is that there's lots of room and lots of opportunity to get better.

"If Chris Scott, Ramone Johnson, Ramon Foster, Josh McNeil and Jacques McClendon and that group of guys will take advantage of that challenge, we have a chance to make some really good strides during the course of spring practice."

All of the afore-mentioned players are considered quality prospects but none is ready to contend for all-star recognition just yet.

"I don't think there's an Arron Sears among the group," Fulmer conceded, "but there are some guys that are very, very capable of being good players."

UT's head man believes the mediocre rushing numbers last fall can be traced to the focus of opposing defenses. Knowing Fulmer's fondness for the ground game, they massed to stop the run and dared Tennessee to pass.

"People, from our history, loaded up to try and stop the running game," Fulmer said. "When you block eight and they've got nine, it gets a little hard. Coker was a guy that was able to make that extra guy miss or outrun him from time to time and give us some big plays."

This time last year Foster, Coker and Montario Hardesty – UT's top three tailbacks – were sidelined by injuries that kept them from participating in spring practice.

"We didn't have a (scholarship) tailback in spring practice last year," offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe noted, suggesting this played a role in the rushing struggles Tennessee experienced during the season.

Another factor: Tennessee's passing attack was so productive in 2006 that the Vols were able to win nine games without much of a ground game.

"We didn't lean on it a lot," Fulmer said. "We were leaning on our quarterback and our receivers."

Cutcliffe echoed that assessment.

"What we've done offensively is always try to use our strengths," he said. "We weren't a bad running team. We chose not to run because we felt we could score points and be more productive throwing the football."

Now that last fall's top three receivers are gone, however, Tennessee will need for the rushing attack to carry its share of the offensive load in 2007.

"As I look at this team," Cutcliffe said, "I don't think there's any question we've got to be a better running team to present the kind of offense we've got to have to do what we talk about – which is to score enough points to win."


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