No go-to guy, no problem

Whenever Tennessee faced third-and-long last year, everybody in the stadium knew Erik Ainge would look for go-to guy Robert Meachem. This year, on third-and-long, no one knows where the ball might go.

Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe thinks that's a good thing heading into Saturday's showdown at No. 4 Florida. That's because the Gators shut down Meachem a year ago by having safety Reggie Nelson provide double-team help whenever possible. Meachem wound up catching four passes for 47 yards. If you discount a 24-yard grab, his other three receptions averaged just 7.7 yards each.

"Florida paid a lot of attention to him," Cutcliffe said of Meachem. "Their safety was in position a lot to help play him."

After a record-setting junior year, Meachem elected to turn pro rather than return for his senior season. That, along with the departure of seniors Jayson Swain and Bret Smith, has left Tennessee with no clearcut go-to guy for 2007. But Cutcliffe isn't complaining.

"Right now people are not able to pinpoint a help mode because we spread the ball around a little bit," he said. "Sometimes that no-name offense can be better than when you've got a guy you're going to so much. I'd still love to have Meachem – don't get me wrong – but I think the balance has been good for us to this point."

Austin Rogers, who leads Tennessee with 13 catches, agrees that the Vols' offensive balance helps keep opposing defenders ... well, off balance.

"I think it does, especially when you don't just have one weapon and they can't just focus on one player here or there," he said. "We have a lot of weapons in the backfield, plus Erik and all the receivers. It's definitely tough on defenses.

Cutcliffe says Tennessee goes to great lengths to keep from being predictable. The Vols don't want to consistently give the ball to Arian Foster in one situation or consistently throw the ball to Rogers in another situation. That makes them easier to defend.

"We've been really good at spreading the ball around on third down," Cutcliffe said. "That's one of the things we self-scout. We've got certain packages for that. Based on coverage, the ball can go a lot of places."

After routinely looking for Meachem last year, Ainge is more inclined to go through his progressions – option 1, option 2, option 3 – this season.

"That's a tribute to Erik," Cutcliffe said. "He's got five options on a route, and that's difficult to do. Try it (going through the progressions) in two and a half seconds. He's done real well with that to this point."

Ainge, in turn, passes the credit to others. When asked to identify the offense's most encouraging development to date, he quickly pinpointed the unheralded wideouts.

"It's got to be the way the wide receivers are playing," he said. "We knew the offensive line was going to block and the running backs were going to run and I was going to throw.

"We didn't know what was going to happen outside. We REALLY didn't. I think we're finding out, piece by piece, that there are some guys here who are every bit as good as the guys we had last year."


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