Fulmer's Dilemma

David Cutcliffe's impending departure for the head coaching job at Duke puts him in unique company as a fired Ole Miss head coach hired for another Division I head coaching position, but it does nothing to enhance Tennessee's ongoing recruiting drive which had just started to gain some semblance of traction.

Coach Cut's popularity in Big Orange Country stems from his direct ties to the football glory days of the 90s and his contributions to Peyton Manning's development as a signal caller. He returned to help Tennessee in a time of need, and proved his ability to mold QBs. So naturally there is good will and best wishes for what figures to be a Devil of a challenge at Duke. There is also a considerable trepidation for the program he leaves behind.

Cutcliffe is expected to take a couple of assistants with him in running backs coach Kurt Roper and recruiting coordinator/tight end coach Matt Luke, both of whom served under him in Oxford, Miss., and followed him to UT. That will leave a gaping hole in Phillip Fulmer's coaching staff and a break in continuity that will have a ripple effect in recruiting. Additionally it undermines Tennessee's image as a bastion of coaching stability.

Sure, it's not the head coach, who remains the dean of SEC football bosses, but it is the offensive coordinator, quarterback coach, recruiting coordinator, RB coach and tight end coach. Plus it comes at a bad time with UT having the fewest number of commitments of any SEC school. The 11 high school players the Vols have commitment includes a couple of soft verbals and only one four star prospect.

This Class of 2008 has some solid prospects that can be expected to make contributions down the road, but none of the bell-ringer variety, such as Eric Berry, that can be expected to make some early noise. Certainly the Vols will aim to bring in some prospects of that caliber, but with no official visits scheduled before January and the staff in a state of flux they will be at a distinct disadvantaged.

Moreover, this will be the second major overhaul of the offensive staff in the last three years which creates obstacles beyond the recruiting trail. You might recall that offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens and wide receivers coach Pat Washington were jettisoned after Tennessee's 5-6 campaign of 2005. You may also remember that the end result was probably the lowest ranked recruiting class signed during Fulmer's tenure as head coach on The Hill.

The results of another such signing class would be felt by the 2009 campaign when the No. 1 recruiting class of 2005 will be largely gone. A couple of sub par (by Tennessee standards) signing classes would occupy the sophomore and senior levels of the roster. That's why a strong finish in January and February is critical.

In order for that to happen the Vols will need to have a new offensive coordinator either hired or in place. In turn a proven O.C. may want to have input into filling other openings on the offensive staff. Cutcliffe was essentially given autonomy to bring in Roper and Luke.

The problem is further complicated by the existing system and whether it will be retained. There certainly aren't many O.C.s experienced in this particular system which is essentially a pro-style offense with option elements and a variety of spread packages. The power running game out of the I-formation was rarely seen this season. The passing game under Cutcliffe the last two seasons evolved into more spread formation from the shotgun with emphasis on the short and intermediate zones. Play-action was much more limited and the vertical passing game was all but abandoned.

An established coordinator could come in and get up to speed in the spring, adding elements of his own packages as circumstances allow. Otherwise the entire offense would have to learn a new system run by an inexperienced quarterback.

NFL assistant Kippy Brown knew the offense as originally installed by Walt Harris and he has served as an O.C. in the NFL. However he may not have any interest in returning to college football and recruiting, plus UT may not be able to afford him even if he was found to be interested.

The other alternative is to promote in-house, presumably from the offensive staff left after Cutcliffe's move. The most appealing candidate may be Trooper Taylor who has excelled with both UT's receivers and running backs and is arguably the Vols finest recruiter among the assistants.

Taylor has been connected to the offensive coordinator's job at his alma mater of Baylor, and he would be hard pressed to turn it down unless he had the same opportunity at Tennessee. Taylor turned down a job offer from Texas last year and has been mentioned as a coach of interest to the NFL. Presumably, if he is promoted to offensive coordinator a quarterback coach would be added to the staff.

The question is whether can Fulmer afford to let Taylor go, given his popularity with the team and his talent as a recruiter?

On the other hand, can Fulmer afford to hire an O.C. with no prior experience?

Former Vol assistant Randy Sanders received such a battlefield commission with mixed results. However both Fulmer and Cutcliffe also took over as UT O.C. without prior experience in the position and each had unquestioned success.

That crystalizes the challenge facing Fulmer as he moves forward without his most trusted and talented professional colleague. If he was looking to prove himself while putting a stamp on his legacy, he couldn't have chosen a better situation.

Or a tougher test.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories