Vols Must Neutralize UGA Linebackers

Tennessee's success in the running game is really a cooperative effort between the offensive line, its coaches, the backs, strategy, and the quarterback who must handle the ball and check out of bad calls.

Much of Tennessee's trouble this year has been at the guard position where injuries and inconsistency have led to four different starting lineups involving — Jason Respert, Chavis Smith, Anthony Herrera and Sean Young, who took off the red shirt three games into the season and was promptly proclaimed Tennessee's starter at left guard. True freshman Rob Smith is also in the mix and could see his playing time increase dramatically.

Young is probably the only Vol starting guard near 100 percent and he has the added rust to knock off from his early inactivity. Respert is nursing a sore shoulder, Smith has been slowly coming back from a leg injury and Herrera is doubtful this week with a knee injury.

The lack of a regular lineup has restricted the development of Tennessee's O-line which has to be more cohesive as a unity than any other in the game. And the interior of an offensive line has to make far more adjustments to defensive alignments, stunts and blitzes than the tackles. The guards are often put into match-ups with linebackers who are the defense's strike force on passes and runs.

Tennessee's instability at guard is a lot of what's wrong with the team's inability to run or protect the quarterback. Arkansas most often hurt Tennessee with inside pressure and found unobstructed run gaps to the inner sanctum of the pocket. If you recall game one against Wyoming, Clausen set a career record for carries and many overlooked it's significance in light of the 40-point win. It's turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. And it has a lot less to do with Tennessee being physically overmatched as it does with the Vols not getting properly matched up.

The fullback also figures into this problem because he has to pick up the blitzing linebackers the guards may miss in the passing game, or throw the clearing block on linebackers when leading the tailback through the hole out of the I-formation.

There is no question Tennessee misses the size and power of Will Bartholomew when taking on the big linebackers. Troy Fleming has had a good season as a skilled fullback and a versatile one back, but, up to this point, his blocking is not up the standards to which the Vols are accustomed.

That match-up with the linebackers reaches critical mass this Saturday when Tennessee takes on Georgia between the hedges. Fleming, 6-2, 226, will spot size no matter which starter Tennessee decides to test. Sam linebacker Boss Bailey is 6-3, 229, Will linebacker Chris Clemons is 6-3, 236, and middle linebacker Mike Gilbert is 6-0, 244. This group is also strong, quick and expectionally athletic.

Another problem the Vols have had with linebackers is finding a second tight end who is quick enough to get a reach block and strong enough to seal the backer thus preventing pursuit. Tennessee's two tight end power formation was much more effective with the departed John Finlayson.

Finally the lack of effective wide receivers other than Kelley Washington has afforded opposing defenses the luxury of leaving their linebackers in the game to blitz and quickly neutralize draws and screens, as opposed to swapping them for defensive backs to fortify pass coverage. The presence of linebackers makes it easier for defenses to complicate the O-line's assignments and to disguise blitzes.

Apparently neither of Tennessee's other two active fullbacks — Will Revill and Sudan Ellington — are ready for playing time. Ellington, 6-3, 245, didn't move to the position until this preseason after working at tight end during the spring. Revill, 6-1, 245, is a redshirt freshman who has only seen limited action. However Revill demonstrated some ability in the Orange and White game and he has ideal size for the position.

The Vols might have used Jabari Davis at fullback in combination with another back, but his current value at tailback is too great to allow such an experiment.

Georgia's defensive philosophy is to put its linebackers into positions to make plays. The Bulldogs use multiple fronts with a nose tackle who will often shade the guards and they bring a rover into play to further compress the box.

When you look at this match-up on paper it appears to be the toughest Tennessee has had to to point in the season and the fact it's on the road just compounds the Vols challenge.

The best solution to this problem may be to make Georgia's linebackers play the entire field and to take advantage of their aggressiveness with misdirection and play action. That means showing run and isolating a back like Derrick Tinsley as a reciever out of the backfied or getting tight end Jason Witten in the seam behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties.

Ulitmately Fleming will have to win his share of one-on-one encounters for Tennessee to sustain drives and give the Vols QB time to throw without running first. Ditto for UT's guard who will have to take one giant step for the Vols to spring an upset.

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