'Armed' with newfound depth

If you've ever had your right arm in a sling, you know that relying more on your left arm makes it grow significantly stronger during the healing process.

It's the same way with football teams.

Tennessee's offensive coaches were disappointed that first-team tight end Jeff Cottam, first-team wide receiver Lucas Taylor, first-team fullback David Holbert and second-team running back Montario Hardesty missed all or virtually all of spring practice due to injuries. The coaches also were disappointed that first-team wide receivers Josh Briscoe (class conflict) and Austin Rogers (injury) missed roughly half of the workouts.

Essentially, these guys represent the right arm of the Big Orange offense. While the right arm was inactive, however, the left arm (backups) got stronger due to an increased workload.

Cottam's absence allowed sophomore Luke Stocker to get every first-team snap at tight end. He progressed so well that he was co-winner of the Most Improved Offensive Player Award.

The absence of Taylor, Briscoe and Rogers enabled redshirt freshman Ahmad Paige to make a move and win the other half of the Most Improved Offensive Player Award. Quintin Hancock, Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones also took advantage of the additional reps they got with Taylor, Briscoe and Rogers missing.

The loss of Holbert due to a major knee injury allowed sophomore Kevin Cooper to step into the No. 1 fullback job, where he proved to be a capable blocker and a surprisingly good pass receiver. Holbert's absence also enabled mid-term freshman Austin Johnson to move from linebacker (where he might have redshirted in 2008) to fullback (where he looms as the chief backup in '08).

Probably no one benefited more from a veteran Vol's absence than mid-term freshman Tauren Poole. With Hardesty sidelined, Poole quickly proved himself a capable reserve at tailback. This freed Tennessee to move redshirt freshman Daryl Vereen from No. 4 at tailback to No. 2 at safety.

Because guys such as Poole, Paige, Cooper and Stocker were forced to fill bigger roles quicker than anticipated, Tennessee's offense suffered some major growing pains during the early weeks of spring practice. Those pains will be forgotten in September, however.

"We played a lot of young guys that at times made the process not as smooth as we would like," offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said, "but I think going through this with those guys is going to pay huge dividends for us – not only next fall but in the seasons ahead."

Despite the injuries and the delays that came with installing a new offensive scheme, Clawson believes spring practice was clearly a success.

"I think we had a productive spring," he said. "Any time you install something new there's going to be some bumps in the road, and we certainly had our share this spring.

"But I think we're a lot further ahead than we were in Practice 1. I think that's always the goal in spring: You want to come out of spring a better football team than you started it.

"There's still a lot of strides we need to make between now and (preseason) camp. Obviously, we're a long ways away from where we want to be for UCLA."

That's true. But at least Tennessee's right arm won't have to carry the whole load now that the left arm has gotten stronger.

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