I offer this nugget not as a suggestion that Tennessee's guard play has slipped to unacceptable levels but merely as a possible indication that it hasn't been as dominating as it once was.
Here's another interesting tidbit: Coleman helped the Vols rush for 2,536 yards in '98 – the program's highest total of the past 14 years – en route to the national title. He helped the Vols rush for 2,104 yards in '99 – the program's third-highest total of the past 14 years.
Is strong guard play crucial to a strong ground game? It would seem so. That said, here's my rating of the top Tennessee guards of the Phillip Fulmer era (1992-present):
1. Cosey Coleman (1997-99): One of the most imposing figures ever to wear Orange, this 6-5, 315-pounder from Clarkston, Ga., started 32 of 39 Vol games before turning pro following his junior season. Tabbed All-SEC as both a sophomore and a junior, he earned All-America recognition in his final college season, as well.
2. Kevin Mays (1993-94): A converted defensive tackle, this 6-4, 300-pound Kingston product brought tremendous levels of toughness and aggressiveness to the position. A team captain and first-team All-SEC selection as a senior, he would've been an outstanding pro had he not blown out a knee while running sprints for NFL scouts following his senior season at UT.
3. Fred Weary (1999, 2001): A terrific drive blocker, this 6-4, 301-pounder from Montgomery, Ala., this former defensive lineman saw his offensive development interrupted by a Game 2 ankle injury in 2000 that required surgery and forced him to miss 10 games. He bounced back in '01 to earn All-SEC honors, however, and has gone on to play six years in the NFL.
4. Bubba Miller (1992-95): Featuring the typical fireplug build of a guard at 6-1 and 300 pounds, the Franklin native played the position exceptionally well. Especially adept as a run blocker, Miller started at guard in '92, moved to center in '93, then returned to guard after suffering a hand injury that impaired his ability to snap the ball. Voted a team captain as a senior, he went on to spend seven quality seasons in the NFL despite being undrafted.
5. Anthony Herrera (2000-03): He never managed to start a full season at UT but started parts of all four years – nine games in '00, six in '01, nine in '02 and 12 in '03. The 6-4, 305-pounder from Naples, Fla., has gone on to enjoy a solid career with the NFL's Minnesota Vikings.
6. Mercedes Hamilton (1997-98): Switched from defensive tackle during his sophomore year, he was starting by season's end. Hamilton opened holes for two SEC Championship teams, including the '98 squad that also captured the national title. The Waynesboro, Ga., product was a team captain as a senior.
7. Rob Smith (2004-05): This hard-nosed 6-3, 311-pounder from Fort Thomas, Ky., appeared on his way to greatness after starting every game in 2004 and 2005. He was so upset by the firing of offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens following the '05 season, however, that Smith declared for the NFL Draft. He went undrafted and played in just one game for the Cleveland Browns in 2006. He is currently bidding for a roster spot with the Kansas City Chiefs.
8. Cody Douglas (2003-05): Blessed with quick feet and a 6-4, 330-pound frame, this talented Texan had everything needed to be a standout except good health. Plagued by an assortment of injuries throughout his career, he still wound up starting 25 games.
Other starting guards from the Fulmer era:
- Jason Respert (2001-02): Like Douglas, this 6-4, 305-pound native of Warner-Robbins, Ga., saw his UT career crippled by injury. He started the first three games as a sophomore in '01 before fracturing an ankle, then was limited to nine starts as a junior and to one start as a senior.
- David Ligon (2005-06): Yet another converted defensive lineman, Ligon started four games at center during an injury-plagued junior season, then started at guard as a senior in '06. The 6-5, 300-pound Germantown native was exceptionally bright and technically proficient.
- Trey Peterson (1995): This 6-4, 270-pound native of New Smyrna Beach, Fla., spent three years backing up Jeff Smith and Kevin Mays before finally getting a chance to start as a senior. Peterson was athletic enough that he also saw spot action at tight end during his UT career.
- Toby Champion (2000): A massive 6-4, 310-pounder from Humboldt, he waited his turn behind more talented guards before finally getting to start as a senior.