Protecting the passer

Several factors have contributed to Tennessee's passing-game woes this fall. Except for the UCLA game, pass protection hasn't been one of them.

Despite a patchwork offensive line that has operated without three-year starting center Josh McNeil all season and first-team left guard Vladimir Richard the past 2 1/2 games, the Vols have been protecting quarterback Jonathan Crompton rather well. They allowed three sacks in Game 2 vs. the Bruins but have allowed just three more in the other four games combined.

Last week, facing an Auburn defensive line that features two of the SEC's top 10 sack masters - Antonio Coleman and Mike Blanc - Tennessee's blocking front allowed zero sacks and very few hurries.

After allowing a whopping 25 sacks in 2008, the Big Orange is on pace to allow just 14 this season.

If the pass protection continues to be that solid, perhaps Crompton and his receivers will get on the same page at some point, giving Tennessee the aerial threat it so desperately needs.

Regardless, head coach Lane Kiffin was very pleased with the work of his pass protectors last Saturday vs. the Tigers.

"We played better in pass protection," he said. "As we look at the one-on-one matchups, the guys did a good job, especially in the two-minute when the (opposing) guys know you're throwing the ball."

Tennessee's starting O-line vs. Auburn consisted of four seniors - Cody and Cory Sullins, Jacques McClendon, Chris Scott - and redshirt freshman Aaron Douglas. Though way behind the others in terms of his pass-protecting experience, Douglas did a surprisingly good job vs. Tiger ends Coleman and Michael Goggans.

"Aaron Douglas (faced) two very good ends there; one defensive end was All-SEC last year," Kiffin noted. "That was really good to see. He had about two negative plays that hurt us but, outside of that, he did a really good job."

Douglas was thrust into the starting lineup when Richard had to miss the past two games. Although Richard is a skilled and experienced blocker, his absence didn't shake up the Vol front to the extent many observers expected.

"It doesn't shake it up as bad as some people might think," senior center Cody Sullins said. "In practice we'll work those guys in and out. Most of those five upfront are used to working with other guys. It is nice to have one unit in there to work with all the time, get more acquainted with them, but it doesn't shake it up that bad (when newcomers join the lineup)."

Tennessee allowed so many sacks and hurries in Game 2 vs. UCLA that Kiffin was understandably reluctant to call pass plays in Games 3 and 4. In the fourth quarter of Game 5 vs. Auburn, however, Jonathan Crompton uncorked 21 passes - completing 13 for 181 yards and two touchdowns.

"As the game went on, we felt a little more confident," Kiffin said. "You could see that in the fourth quarter.... In that game, we got more confidence in being able to drop back in the fourth quarter because they were doing a good job of it."

Given how awful UT's pass protection was in Game 2, even the head coach seems a little surprised by the dramatic progress evident in the Auburn game.

"It was good to see because it had not been something that I thought we could have hung our hat on," he said. "I wouldn't have said we were a great two-minute pass protect team, so it was good to see that."


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