What's my line?

It's generally more fun to watch the skill-position players but Tennessee football fans might learn even more about the outlook for 2007 by watching the guys in the trenches during today's Orange & White game.

Tennessee finished 10th among the 12 SEC teams in rushing last fall, so the offensive line must do a better job of run blocking. That task is made more difficult by the loss of two key starters from 2006 – All-America tackle Arron Sears and guard David Ligon.

Tennessee also struggled to stop the run last fall. Thus, the defensive line must do a better job of holding its ground. That task is made more difficult by the loss of the top three tackles from 2006 – Justin Harrell, Turk McBride and Matt McGlothlin.

On a positive note, both lines appear to have made significant progress this spring.

The offensive front has improved, even with three projected starters missing considerable action. Right tackle Eric Young has not practiced at all, while guard Anthony Parker and center Josh McNeil have seen limited action. Parker and McNeil returned to action recently, providing a bit of a spark.

"I've been encouraged of late with Anthony Parker returning," head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "When we get Eric Young back out there, that'll certainly change the look."

The head man said he's looking forward to a time when "we can settle on five guys playing the same positions – not having to move Ramon Foster all over the place and not having to move Chris Scott all over the place."

Tennessee's workouts have been unusually physical this spring, with a lot more full-speed one-on-one drills than usual. Fulmer believes better toughness along the offensive front will produce a better running game. The blockers seem to be responding well.

"They like it," the head man said. "They're getting after it. Some of the young ones don't understand yet but there's seven guys we can put in the game and play with."

Fulmer also sees improved toughness along the defensive front as the key to improved play against the run.

"The defensive front it's the same thing," he said. "At the beginning of the spring we were playing like we didn't have any defensive tackles. But Dan Williams and Demonte Bolden have grown up some. And J.T. Mapu has been a good leader."

Better run support also depends on ends Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds. Both started in 2006, and both return for 2007. Wes Brown is emerging as a capable backup but Robert Ayers, probably UT's most talented end, missed spring ball due to injury. The only other end, Andre Mathis, is a converted linebacker who still has a lot to learn.

Although the Vol front four doesn't feature any Outland Trophy candidates or All-Americans, Fulmer believes it can be more than adequate.

"They're not John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth or any of those type guys," he said, "but they can be darned good, tough guys."


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