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Tennessee football has gone back to the future with hopes of regaining its 1990s form. With defensive success firmly in place, coach Phillip Fulmer seeks to re-establish Tennessee's offensive prowess with the hiring of former Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe to serve as coordinator.
"David brings fresh ideas and a fresh attitude to the offensive team," Fulmer says. "We didn't meet our goals there last year for a number of different reasons. I expect David and the offensive staff to increase productivity."
Cutcliffe guided Peyton Manning through triumphs in Knoxville and served as the Volunteers' offensive coordinator throughout the regular season in 1998, when Tennessee won the national championship.
Any remaining luster from that title vanished during the 5-6 campaign of 2005. The Volunteers ranked 101st in the nation in scoring offense and 98th in passing efficiency. "Last season was an aberration," says Fulmer, who before 2005 hadn't won fewer than eight games in a season in his tenure. "Tennessee is still Tennessee. We expect to be competitive in this league and challenge for championships."
Cutcliffe has rifle-armed junior Erik Ainge and athletic redshirt freshman Jonathan Crompton to work with at quarterback. Unlike like season, when the quarterback situation turned into a soap opera with Ainge sharing duties with new graduate assistant coach Rick Clausen, Fulmer and Cutcliffe will maintain order under center.
There will be more competition at tailback, where incumbent Arian Foster returns after rushing for more than 100 yards in each of his first five starts. Foster is a glider with great vision, but the coaches also like Montario Hardesty, who runs with authority and rarely goes down on the first hit. Fullbacks Cory Anderson and David Holbert are head-splitting blockers with soft hands and running skills.
Junior Robert Meachem leads a talented and experienced receiving corps. He has impressive speed and leaping ability. Senior Jayson Swain is an intermediate route-runner with great hands, while senior Bret Smith is a slippery target with a penchant for big plays. The key to the offense could be the line, where All-America candidate Arron Sears is the only returning starter.
The Volunteers lost six of their starting front seven from a year ago, but there's hardly any panic. Senior defensive tackle Justin Harrell is a dominating force, and senior Turk McBride has seen a great deal of action with Tennessee's practice of rotating defensive linemen into the game on a regular basis. Both appear to have NFL skills and will likely find their way onto postseason all-star ballots.
Tennessee's replacing all three linebackers from a year ago, but fifth-year senior Marvin Mitchell plays like a seasoned veteran, and redshirt freshman Rico McCoy exhibited great instincts and hitting abilities during spring drills. Jerod Mayo and Ryan Karl have great speed and play disciplined within the system.
The same could be said across the board in the secondary, where Tennessee runs at least six-deep. Cornerback Jonathan Wade is one of the fastest players in the SEC, while Inky Johnson played with an edge at the other corner after preseason All-American Jason Allen went down with a hip injury. Safety Jonathan Hefney is the team's leading returning tackler and packs more punch than one might expect from a 5'9", 185-pounder.
Senior kicker James Wilhoit enters the season as the SEC's leading active scorer (229 points) after finishing last season with eight consecutive field goals.
Sophomore punter Britton Colquitt averaged a career-best 46.7 yards on six punts in Tennessee's final home game last season against Vanderbilt.
Fulmer says it best: "Tennessee is still Tennessee," and though the Volunteers likely aren't ready to challenge for another national title, it would be a mistake to count them out of the SEC East Division race.
Tennessee's Sept. 2 season-opener against Top 25 foe California at Neyland Stadium will serve as an indication of how quickly the Volunteers can bounce back from a 5-6 season.