Blue-collar Vols

Ten years ago, Tennessee's football roster seemed to feature more stars than the Milky Way.

Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe had Heisman Trophy runnerup Peyton Manning at quarterback, operating behind a line that featured future NFL standouts Chad Clifton, Trey Teague and Cosey Coleman.

On running plays, Cutcliffe had to decide whether the ball should be handed to Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry or Shawn Bryson, three more future pros. On passing downs, Cutcliffe could count on Peerless Price and Cedrick Wilson – two more NFL-caliber players – to get open on a regular basis.

Defensive coordinator John Chavis had it pretty good in the late 1990s, as well. His front fours featured future NFL standouts John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Leonard Little, Darwin Walker and Shaun Ellis. Two more future pros, Al Wilson and Raynoch Thompson, graced the linebacker corps. The secondaries featured such notables as Deon Grant, Terry Fair, Raymond Austin and Dwayne Goodrich – all of whom went on the play in the NFL.

Anyone with approximately 20/20 vision can see that Tennessee no longer has that caliber of athlete in its program. The talent bin isn't empty but it is no longer overflowing. Basically, the 2007 squad is a blue-collar team that must earn its stripes without stars.

Senior quarterback Erik Ainge, the closest thing Tennessee has to an elite player, concedes that the talent level isn't what it once was. He says that's OK, however.

"We knew that from the beginning," he said. "We knew we didn't have seven All-Americans and 10 first-round draft picks on the team like they had in 1995 through '99. We have a lot of good players and a lot of good young players. Maybe in two years we will have that (top-notch talent) but right now we don't."

Lacking top-notch talent, Tennessee has been wildly erratic in its performances this fall. The 5-3 Vols looked horrendous in losing to Florida (59-20) and Alabama (41-17) but looked tremendous in defeating Georgia (35-14). They no longer out-talent people, so they have to outplay them. As a result, Tennessee has a small margin for error most Saturdays.

"We knew that there would be fourth-quarter games, close games, and we were going to have to be the most disciplined team," Ainge said. "That's something they (coaches) have been preaching since we started working out last summer: ‘Work on the fundamentals because we need to be the most fundamentally sound team.'"

Tennessee could afford an occasional fundamental foul-up in the late 1990s because its players were talented enough to overcome mental miscues with physical superiority. That is no longer the case.

"We don't have everybody on defense that runs a 4.4," Ainge said. "We don't have receivers that are 6-2 and 210 pounds. We can still be good and we can still control our own destiny but it's going to be more of a blue-collar kind of thing."

Tennessee had one star-quality receiver last fall, first-round NFL draft pick Robert Meachem. The staff could count on the All-American for a couple of big plays nearly each weekend. Now that Meachem is gone, the Vols lack that type of home-run threat.

As Ainge noted: "You can't just say, ‘Throw the ball to Robert Meachem, let him go get it, break four tackles and run for 20 yards.' Our receivers are playing great but there isn't that one guy."

There isn't that "one guy" in the rushing attack, either. No one on the current roster is threatening to make fans forget Jamal Lewis or Travis Henry.

Ainge explained it this way: "We don't have a Jamal Lewis, where it's third and nine and you can just say, ‘Let's just get him the ball; he's going to make four guys miss.' We don't have that. A lot of teams don't have that."

Tennessee no longer has an elite blocker, either. The Vols had one last year but Arron Sears is now pancaking people in the NFL.

"We have to make the right block," Ainge said. "We can't just Arron Sears somebody. That's kind of the way we are."

Tennessee fans don't mind blue-collar teams if they produce white-collar results. That isn't happening this year, though. Basically, the Vols are an ordinary team with an extraordinary passer.

As head coach Phillip Fulmer put it: "I think it's a blue-collar type team but it has an outstanding quarterback. When he plays really well, we play really well."

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