A tougher Tennessee

Tennessee had enough talent to win big last season. Tennessee had enough speed. Tennessee had enough coaching. Where Tennessee came up short was in the area of toughness.

Florida's defensive front dominated the Vols' offensive front in Game 3, limiting Tennessee to minus-11 net rushing yards. LSU's offensive front whipped the Vols' defensive front in Game 9, piling up 231 net rushing yards. Arkansas did the same in Game 10 (259 rushing yards) and Penn State duplicated the feat in Game 13 (183 rushing yards).

Each of the 2006 Vols' four losses could be traced to getting whipped at the line of scrimmage. That's why Phillip Fulmer put his team through an unusually demanding spring practice last March. Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe called it "unlike anything I've been around since I've been here." Defensive coordinator John Chavis echoed those sentiments, noting: "There's no question in my mind that it's the most physical spring we've had … maybe since I've been here going back to '89. That was almost brutal."

Clearly, Fulmer is determined that Tennessee won't lose any more games because it wasn't as physical or as tough as its opponent. Having survived the meat-grinder that was spring of 2007, Tennessee's players believe they are as rugged as any team on the schedule. And they believe this newfound toughness will show up in September.

"I think it'll show up No. 1 in the run game," center Josh McNeil says. "We had a lot of contact, a lot of full-speed work. Pretty much the whole spring we were hitting and banging. I'll think it'll show up in the way we're firing off the ball and hitting and getting the Tennessee running game back to where it used to be."

The Vols managed just 108 rushing yards per game last season. McNeil insists that won't happen again.

"In my opinion we have the best quarterback (Erik Ainge) in the country, so we're going to throw it some," he says. "But we're also going to run it. We're going to smash-mouth because that is Tennessee football … smash-mouth football."

Defensive end Xavier Mitchell says the taxing nature of Tennessee's spring practices provided a reminder of how tough and physical life in the Southeastern Conference can be.

"I think it'll carry over into (preseason) camp," he says. "Just knowing how physical it was in the spring puts it in our minds how physical we have to play in the fall. Coach Fulmer, Coach Chavis and Coach Cut are expecting the things we did in the spring to carry over, so that's just going to bring us to another level when we play on Saturdays."

Mitchell believes Tennessee's offensive line was more physical in the spring of 2007 than it was last fall. That, in turn, forced the defensive line to be more physical. The fact Tennessee's offense did a lot of no-huddle work last spring also helped both lines toughen up a bit.

"They were in the no-huddle a lot," Mitchell notes, "so not only were they more physical but they kept us (defenders) in shape and kept us on our toes. It really helped us working against the no-huddle."

The greater demands on Tennessee's players didn't end with spring practice, however. Several Vols say the summer workout regimen has been more strenuous than its predecessors.

"It's been the hardest one since I've been here," Ainge says. "They're doing a good job of pushing the limits, then backing off, pushing the limits, then backing off."

From all appearances, Tennessee is on track to be a much tougher football team – mentally and physically – in 2007.

"Absolutely," Mitchell says. "We're more mentally tough than we've ever been. The summer workouts aren't going fast enough. We're all wanting to get out there and start practicing."

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