Sack savers

Like your favorite deodorant stick, Tennessee's offensive linemen can be counted on for solid protection.

The Vols are "airing it out" this season, having unloaded 193 passes in the first six games. That's an average of 32.2 throws per contest. In spite of this, Tennessee has permitted just two sacks all fall, leading the NCAA in that category heading into Saturday's game at Mississippi State.

The Vols' head coach figured back in August that the 2007 offensive line would be good at pass protecting. He just didn't figure it would be THIS good.

"I don't know that you saw that coming ... being that good," Phillip Fulmer said. "People have really tried to pressure us a lot. That's opened up a lot of seams for the receivers. The fact Erik (Ainge) is on time so well and the receivers have done such a great job of being where they're supposed to be ... that's the start of it."

Although the linemen handle the heavy lifting in terms of pass protection, the running backs and tight ends deserve some credit, as well. So does Ainge, who generally gets rid of the ball promptly.

"The backs have done a good job protecting – that's important – or he has a built-in layoff somewhere that Erik gets to immediately," Fulmer noted. "And the linemen have done a really good job. It's all of 'em together, and the system works."

No one has been happier about Tennessee's air-tight pass protection than offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. He believes the Vols' linemen deserve a lot of praise, along with the offensive position coaches.

"They've done an outstanding job," Cutcliffe said. "We have a lot of drills – Coach (Greg) Adkins, Coach (Matt) Luke and Coach (Kurt) Roper working together – doing all the blitz pickup and all the protections. We work awfully hard at that, and it pays off. We feel like we have a good protection system."

Ultimately, though, the key to pass protection is the performance of the big uglies up front. Tennessee's blockers have done a fantastic job of keeping Ainge off his back, especially when he was bothered by a broken pinky in September.

"I think the guys are taking great pride in it," Cutcliffe said. "When Erik was hurt, they knew he didn't need to get hit a whole heck of a lot. I think it's something the players themselves have kind of grasped hold of."


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