UT welcomes open date

They have two lopsided victories and two ugly losses thus far.

They have several key players injured and a dozen more nicked up.

They have an offense that has struggled to make big plays and a defense that has struggled to stop big plays.

They have a frustrated fan base that wants to see better execution and more consistency.

They have a make-or-break game with Georgia coming up in 12 days.

They have an open date this week, and the Tennessee Vols certainly need it.

"It couldn't come at a better time for us," head coach Phillip Fulmer said on his Sunday teleconference. "With the physical schedule we have played, we've got a chance to heal up at a lot of places. At the same time, it's an opportunity to work and learn."

If the Vols were 4-0 and playing well, Fulmer might give his players some extra time off this week. If they were 0-4 and playing horribly, he might put them through the same kind of taxing regimen they endured during two-a-days. With the Vols 2-2 and playing erratically, he suggests this week will fall somewhere in between.

"It won't be like two-a-days," Fulmer said, "but it will be physical and a learning process for us."

Although he conceded that the Vols have "a lot of work to be done on both sides of the football," the head man said he is very pleased with tailback LaMarcus Coker, who "gave us some really outstanding play" in a 101-yard rushing performance Saturday night vs. Arkansas State. Fulmer also noted that "the receivers, particularly Lucas Taylor, continue to play very efficiently." Taylor had seven catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday night's 48-27 victory.

Although the Vols surrendered pass plays of 48 and 45 yards, plus a 44-yard run vs. Arkansas State, Fulmer noted that "Defensively, some good progress has been made."

The most encouraging progress was the fact the Vols finally mustered a pass rush, registering four sacks and four hurries vs. ASU. As a result, they were able to pick off a couple of hurried passes.

"We got excellent pressure on the quarterback," Fulmer noted, "although a couple of plays got away from us."

The head man said Tennessee can significantly reduce the number of big plays it is allowing if the linebackers will "press the line of scrimmage better and stay in their gaps."

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the open date is that it will enable the Vols to get some key players healthier for the Georgia game. No. 1 quarterback Erik Ainge has played all season with a broken finger. Reserve tailback Montario Hardesty sat out Game 4 with a sprained ankle. Britton Colquitt has been limited to punting by a pulled quadriceps muscle.

"I think Erik's finger is considerably improved," Fulmer said. Noting that the timetable for a complete recovery is fast approaching, the coach added that this is "a plus for us."

The head man said he has talked with Colquitt about assuming the kick-off duties but will leave the decision up to the player because "He's so valuable punting that I don't want to put him at that risk."

As for Hardesty, Fulmer said x-rays showed no serious damage to the ankle. The head man said Hardesty could've played Saturday except that "he hadn't practiced in two weeks.... It's just a matter of it getting loosened back up."

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