Stronger O-line will help Vols

A time-honored cliché says there is strength in numbers. But the numbers Tennessee's offense put up last season suggested a lack of strength.

The Vols averaged just 108 rushing yards per game in 2006. That figure ranked 10th among the 12 SEC programs and represented Tennessee's worst mark in almost two decades.

You certainly couldn't blame that paltry figure on the lack of a complementary passing attack. Tennessee ranked 12th nationally in passing offense at 264.5 yards per game.

You couldn't blame the rushing numbers on a lack of quality ball-carriers, either. Arian Foster proved himself with a brilliant freshman season in 2005. LaMarcus Coker proved to be a big-play threat in 2006 on those rare occasions when he got an opening. Montario Hardesty proved to have a nose for the end zone by scoring touchdowns in each of his first four games last fall.

So, if the quarterback, the receivers and the running backs weren't to blame for Tennessee's running woes last season, who's left? The offensive linemen, obviously. A lot of fans' fingers were pointed at them last season. That's why the linemen have been working harder than ever this summer. They don't want to be viewed as the weak link in the ground game again.

"The run game's something that's stuck in the back of our minds the whole time," sophomore center Josh McNeil said recently. "When you get 10th in the SEC in running at Tennessee that's not acceptable. We know that and we've been working hard to change that."

Although Foster, Coker and Hardesty were hampered by injuries in 2006, McNeil says they deserve none of the blame for the futility of Tennessee's ground game.

"The three running backs obviously did a great job," McNeil said.

Healthy for the first time since spraining his ankle in Game 2 last fall, Foster ran exceptionally well in spring practice. Coker and Hardesty, though limited by injuries in the spring, should be 100 percent when the Vols open the 2007 season Sept. 1 at California.

"Look at Arian Foster and how different he looked in the spring," McNeil said. "We're looking forward to going out to Cal, so we can start setting things straight with the run game."

Tennessee's run game had better be productive because the offense no longer has the luxury of relying on the passing game the way it did in 2006. Minus the top three receivers from last fall – Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith – the wideout corps is suspect at best. So, a stronger run game is needed to relieve some pressure from the passing attack.

"That will give the new receivers time to learn everything," McNeil said, grinning at the prospect of more rushing plays this fall. "It's going to be an exciting year."

It's no secret that Tennessee's offensive linemen were too big and slow in 2005. Averaging 330 pounds per man, the five starters were too ponderous to pull on sweeps and screen passes. One of David Cutcliffe's first priorities after taking over as offensive coordinator in the spring of 2006 was getting the blockers leaner, quicker and more athletic.

After making strides last fall and spring, Vol linemen appear to be much better conditioned heading into 2007.

"The weight room is where it all begins," McNeil said. "Games are won in the offseason. We all know that, especially the offensive linemen and defensive linemen. This is where games are won for us. It's in the fall where we put everything together, go out there and have fun."

The new emphasis on quickness and strength – rather than bulk – is showing up in several players. Numerous linemen have reduced the weight they carry while increasing the weight they lift. For instance, Jacques McClendon recently broke the program's bench-press record by hoisting 560 pounds.

"We've gotten a lot stronger," McNeil noted. "Jacques McClendon broke the bench record, and we've got a lot of guys benching really high."

With more strength and more agility, Tennessee's offensive linemen should be more versatile this fall. The quickness to get outside will help them spring receivers on screen passes. The quickness to get downfield will help them spring running backs for big gains.

"A lot of the guys in the offensive line are real strong and they're very athletic, too," McNeil said, grinning broadly. "That's the thing: We can all run, too. It's going to be fun."


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