Uptight about what's up front

It's what's up front that counts. Just ask Dolly Parton ... or Phillip Fulmer. Tennessee's head football coach – having played and coached offensive line – knows that the big uglies up front must play well for an offense to function.

That's why Fulmer is understandably concerned this spring. Two of last season's starting offensive linemen, Arron Sears and David Ligon, are out of eligibility. The other three 2006 starters – Josh McNeil, Eric Young and Anthony Parker – are sidelined by injuries.

Cohesion is the key to success in the offensive line, and repetition is the key to cohesion. Since Tennessee's projected line starters won't be getting any repetitions as a group this spring, the line can't have a whole lot of cohesion when preseason camp begins in August.

Even so, Fulmer is determined to put a positive spin on the situation.

"It's a fantastic opportunity for a group of guys – Steven Jones, Jacques McClendon and Ramon Foster – to step up," the head man said, adding that he's also looking for "a good number of guys we can build our depth around, especially Chris Scott and Ramone Johnson."

Scott is a 6-5, 305-pound sophomore. Johnson is a 6-5, 310-pound redshirt freshman.

Except for Young (a senior) and Parker (a junior), Tennessee's 2007 O-line will be populated by sophomores and redshirt freshmen. With a scrimmage scheduled March 24 and the Orange & White Game set one week later, the young blockers will be getting two chances to show their stuff this month.

"I'm eager to see what they can do because I think they could be starters for us and certainly swing guys who could play a lot of positions," Fulmer said. "It looks like those guys will have a chance to play significantly.... We've got some concerns about if the young ones really understand what it takes to play at this level of football."

McNeil, who started nine games at center as a redshirt freshman last fall, concedes that the 2007 line is going to be young and relatively inexperienced. Still, he's optimistic.

"I think there's a lot of talent," he said. "We're not a hugely experienced group but there's a lot of athletic, quick guys. If we work hard I think we can have an excellent year."

That remains to be seen, of course. Replacing an All-American like Arron Sears will be an especially difficult task.

"Losing him was huge," McNeil said. "In my opinion he's the best offensive lineman in the country. I think we've got some good guys to put in there but a guy like Arron Sears can't be replaced – the leadership he provided and the overall talent that he was."

Practice repetitions can't be replaced, either. With No. 1 quarterback Erik Ainge facing knee surgery that will sideline him for the remainder of the spring, Tennessee picked a heck of a time to install a no-huddle offense. McNeil knows the no-huddle scheme will require lots of reps and lots of adjustment time.

"Especially for me and Erik," he said. "With the calls and everything, it'll be a lot more difficult. But it's our responsibility to learn. That's my job, and I'll learn what I have to."


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