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I Wanna SEC You Up: The Vol Offense

Though last year UT racked up nine wins, in most cases it wasn't the dominating effort fans like to see. Offensive explosions against Cal and UGA aside, The Vols barely got by their other quality opponents, winning against Alabama, South Carolina, and Kentucky (it's weird calling UK quality, isn't it?) by a TD or less, and needing a defensive stop on a two point conversion to hold off Air Force. The biggest factor was the lack of a ground game. A favorite cliche of most sportswriters and SEC partisans is that if you want to win in the SEC, you have to run the ball. In this case, it's totally true: If the Vols want to top their nine win 2006, they'll have to find a way to keep possession and wear down opposing defenses. UT finished the season in the top half of the conference in every meaningful offensive category save rushing, where they finished a dreadful 10th, and only ahead of the pass happy attacks of Kentucky (the #1 passing offense in the conference) and Mississippi State (just because they don't complete their passes doesn't mean they don't attempt them). It was quite a shock to anyone who has paid attention to the Vols, who typically have a star running back (or two) carrying the load. In this century alone, guys like Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, and Gerald Riggs have graced the UT backfield, and those are just the names that immediately leap to mind. But the Vols should have two capable backs returning this year, and an O-Line that's expected to be improved despite the losses of All-American LT Arron Sears and LG David Ligon, who started all thirteen games last year.

What Needs to Change
For the Vol rushing attack to be successful, these are the guys that will have to increase their production this year:

RB LaMarcus Coker
  Coker was the highlight of the ground game last season, averaging 6.4 ypc and finishing 7th in the league with 63.3 ypg. Though he racked up significant yardage against the questionable defensive might of the likes of Marshall, Memphis, and Vandy, his best performance was arguably during the Outback Bowl, when he rushed 5 times for 36 yards and 1 TD against a Penn State squad that finished 7th in the nation against the run (giving up only 2.84 ypc).
RB Arian Foster
  Foster showed significant potential in '05 after replacing an injured Gerald Riggs, but suffered an ankle injury last year against Air Force in week two and never got his step back. Though he, too, had a decent game in the Outback Bowl (rushing 12 times for 65 yds, a 5.4 ypc average), only two other times during the '06 season did he top 60 yards and wound up with a 3.5 ypc on the year. Word out of spring, though, is that Foster was back to his old impressive ways in the spring and will compliment Coker in the backfield nicely.

We can't forget the offensive line, which managed to only improve the ypc average from 3.5 in '05 to 3.7 in '06 despite being a more consistent and healthy unit. The Vols lose All American LT Arron Sears, but return starters Eric Young at RT, Anthony Parker at RG, and Josh McNeil at C, while Ramon Foster (who earned most improved honors in the spring) or Jacques McClendon will join them at LG and Chris Scott replaces Sears at LT. With the returning experience in three of the five positions, and potential in the other two, this unit should be at least as good as it was last year but, for the ground game to be successful, needs to be better.

What Needs to Stay the Same: The passing attack of the Volunteers put UT in the upper echelons of the conference last season:

Passing Offense 2nd
Passing Efficiency 4th
Red Zone Offense 1st
Scoring Offense 4th
Total Offense 6th

Though key receivers Jayson Swain and Robert Meachem have moved on, QB Erik Ainge has developed far enough under David Cutcliffe's tutelage that the Vols have expiremented with a no huddle offense during the spring. Ainge finished second in the league last year in passing avg/game with 249.1 ypg after throwing 233 for 348 for 2989 yards, 19 TDs and 9 picks. His throwing abilities, though, are only as good as the receivers he's throwing to, so here's who's going to have to step up to maintain or, better yet, improve the Vol passing attack.

WR Quintin Hancock
  After a "wasted freshman year," Hancock has emerged from spring practice as the most productive receiver, garnering attention by making the tough catches and generally giving the impression he can make a big impact for the Vols this year. Receivers coach Trooper Taylor was quick to point out, though, that his blocking skills aren't up to par.
WR Lucas Taylor
  Taylor is the leading receiver among the returning wide outs with 14 catches for 101 yds. The Vols have expiremented with Taylor's athletic ability during the spring by lining him up at QB, but there's still some doubt as to whether he's ready to be a true playmaker.
TE Chris Brown
  The leading returning receiver on the team with 31 catches for 239 yds and 1 TD, Brown should be more of a factor in the passing game this season as the Vols are listing two TEs on the depth chart this year and dropping the FB position. Joining him is Brad Cottam who, with 14 catches for 182 yds last year, is the second leading receiver on the team.

The recruiting of receivers was especially productive for UT this year, as five star WRs Kenny O'Neal and Brent Vinson, and three star prospects Todd Campbell and Tyler Maples will join the Vols in the fall to push for playing time.

Tomorrow we'll take a look at the defense for the Vols and see just how effective that pass rush is going to be and, hopefully for us, just how ineffective the inexperienced secondary is looking.