The 'jump-start' guy

One of Derek Dooley's earliest comments upon taking the coaching reins at Tennessee concerned his emphasis on tight ends rather than fullbacks. That was great news for the tight ends, not-so-great news for the fullbacks.

Eight months later, however, senior fullback Kevin Cooper still projects to be one of the Vols' most important players. He has been proving his value in practice on a daily basis, so he isn't worried about Dooley's fondness for multiple-tight end sets.

"No, that doesn't scare me at all," Cooper said. "He puts the best players on the field. If the (No. 2) tight end is better than me he deserves to be on the field. But, personally, I don't see that."

Although the 6-0, 242-pounder is a bruising lead blocker, Cooper has the receiving skills to fill an H-Back role should Dooley decide to go in that direction.

"I can be an H-back if I need to be," said Cooper, who caught 12 passes for 110 yards last fall. "Wherever the coaches want me to play I will. I just want to contribute to the team as much as possible."

Cooper would love to contribute as an occasional ball-carrier. He rushed for 1,891 yards in his final year at Baylor School of Chattanooga.

"I was the running back in high school," he recalled. "I pretty much had the ball in my hands every play. I didn't play fullback until I got up here."

Cooper quickly discovered that Vol fullbacks don't get a lot of touches. He gained 10 yards on five carries during the two seasons he played in Phillip Fulmer's offense, then carried one time for three yards in Lane Kiffin's attack last fall. Except for the occasional safety-valve pass out of the backfield, Cooper basically served as a glorified guard - blocking, blocking and then blocking some more. He doesn't see that changing this fall.

"I'm still going to be the lead blocker in the grand scheme of things," he said. "I feel like I've been a big part of the offense in the Fulmer era, while Coach Kiffin was here and now. It's a little different offenses but I feel like they want to use me in each one of them."

Tennessee seems more inclined to utilize its backs as receivers in Dooley's scheme, so Cooper's contribution could expand a bit this fall. Still, he doesn't see a dramatic shift in his role.

"It's not a big change," he said. "Maybe getting downfield more (on pass routes) but it's pretty much the same."

In addition to preparing himself for the 2010 season, Cooper is helping prepare his backup, freshman Channing Fugate, for the rigors of playing fullback at the collegiate level.

"He's coming along well," Cooper said. "He's progressed a lot since the spring. He'll be pretty good in the future if not now. By the time we play UT-Martin he could probably contribute, and I feel like he could be a pretty good backup if I go down."

Perhaps, but Tennessee can't afford for Cooper to go down. As one of the team's few seniors, he is being counting upon for both quality play and quality leadership this season.

"I feel like I bring experience, toughness," he said. "Being a senior, I feel like the team's looking to me to get it started. I feel like I'm the jump-start, particularly to the run game."

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