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Tennessee's recruiting class features more finesse than physicality

February 11th, 2007 8:09 pm by JOHN MOOREHOUSE



On paper, Tennessee's 2007 football recruiting class is without question one of the best in the nation. The components of that class, however, once again call into question whether the team identity of the Volunteers is changing.


Everyone knows what the Vols traditionally are known for: a bruising running game and the ability to stop the run. It's hard to do either without physicality at the line of scrimmage.


In 2006, though, Tennessee looked more and more like a finesse team, and recruited like one.


This past season, the Vols relied more on the passing game than they have at any time of late. It's worth noting, by the way, that many of the same people who criticized the 2006 Vols for running the ball poorly are the same media members, radio hosts and fans who blast Tennessee on an annual basis for being "too conservative" offensively.


But that's a topic for another day.


Regardless of how one feels about the Vols' offensive philosophy, here is the reality: It is impossible to win consistently in the Southeastern Conference without running the football.


That doesn't mean that SEC teams have to hit a certain yardage total to succeed. What it means is that the difference between great SEC teams and average ones is the ability to get the tough yards when needed. The third-and-shorts. The fourth-and-goals. And in that category, Tennessee failed frequently in 2006.


How did the Vols respond? By doling out most of their scholarships to receivers, cornerbacks and athletes. Smaller guys. Faster guys. Finesse guys.


True, Tennessee had to replace its top three wide receivers and three starting defensive backs - four if you count Inky Johnson. But all the great athletes in the world don't mean much if you can't block at the line of scrimmage.


And right now, there's not much incoming help. Tennessee signed just two offensive linemen - the fewest since 2001 and only the third time in the past 11 years the Vols inked that few.


Tennessee has 12 returning scholarship offensive linemen. One of them, Cameron Mayo, has been plagued by injuries. Another, starting guard Anthony Parker, is coming off major knee surgery.


Center Josh McNeil, Parker and tackle Eric Young are returning starters. Jacques McClendon seems set to start at the other guard, with Chris Scott the heir apparent at Arron Sears' tackle spot.


But beyond that, who's left if someone gets hurt? There's Ramon Foster, who's versatile but has yet to break into the starting lineup despite several chances. Coach Phillip Fulmer feels good about the potential of Vladimir Richard, a converted defensive lineman, but Richard never played on offense until last fall.


As for the other returnees, four - Kirk Swearingen, Darius Myers, Steven Jones and Ramone Johnson - either have barely played or redshirted last season. And yet they appear to be the ones Tennessee will rely on if someone gets hurt - along with newcomers Cody Pope and Darris Sawtelle.


It's rare anymore for the same five to start every game on the line in big-time college football. You have to have depth up front. And right now, the Vols are relying on a group of players who have underachieved, redshirted or been hurt to provide it.


It's a gamble - one that will determine whether Tennessee is a contender or pretender in 2007.


John Moorehouse covers University of Tennessee football for the Times-News. E-mail him at jmoorehouse@timesnews.net.


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