Behind Enemy Lines: Tennessee


Moon Dog says Arian Foster is a good but not great running back.

While most Los Angeles denizens are already talking about the USC opener on the road against Virginia this Saturday, LA’s other team, the UCLA Bruins, kick off their season on Labor Day against the Tennessee Volunteers in primetime. So, for those, who aren’t familiar with the Bruins’ SEC opponent, I had the chance to interview Tennessee superfan and lead blogger of MoonDog Sports.com Fred Vannucci, who will provide some insight on the Volunteers while being as objective as humanly possible.

Update: I had the chance to answer toms questions about UCLA for MoonDog Sports. Check it out here

1. Who will replace all-SEC quarterback Erik Ainge?

Jonathan Crompton will start for the Vols’ Monday night against the Bruins. Crompton is a 6-4, 225-pound junior that saw some action over the past two seasons, most notably during the 2006 season when Eric Ainge missed two games due to an ankle injury.

Crompton has skills Ainge never possessed. He’s very mobile and has the ability to make plays when the pocket collapses. He’s also a threat to run when he’s under pressure. Crompton has a strong arm and is capable of getting the ball deep to the receivers.

He’s had a propensity to make bad decisions and he’s prone to throw an interception or two, but Tennessee’s running game will allow him to run a lot of play action and make short throws to minimize his mistakes.

2. Where does Arian Foster rank in terms of top SEC tailbacks? NCAA?

Foster is a good running back, but not a great one. There have been plenty of tailbacks in Volunteer history who were much better, but Foster is sneaky fast and also has good hands. At 6-1 and 215 pounds, Foster is capable of getting the tough yards inside but he has the speed to break runs outside.

Foster’s biggest problem is his propensity to fumble at the worst possible time. While he’ll more than likely get over 1,000 yards rushing this season, Foster can also be a fifth receiver on the field catching swing passes and screens. Tennessee will utilize Foster’s pass catching ability throughout the season.

3. A first-time starter at quarterback needs a good offensive line. How good is Tennessee’s unit?

The Vols’ offensive line will be among the top 10 units in the nation. Tennessee returns four starters along an offensive line that only allowed four sacks in 2007. The Vols’ have plenty of depth and many of the players that are currently backups have seen substantial playing time the past two seasons.

Tackle Ramon Foster, 6-6, 325 is a returning starter. Tackle Ramone Johnson is 6-5, 315 and has played both the guard and tackle positions and has been a starter in the past. Center Josh McNeil, 6-4, 280 is one of the best in the SEC. Guard Vladimir Richard is a beast – he set the Tennessee bench-press record this year lifting 645 pounds. Fellow guard Anthony Parker, 6-4, 300 is an All-American candidate and first-team All-SEC member.

Look for the Vols to utilize this veteran offensive line throughout the season by running the football with their three talented tailbacks and giving new starter Jonathan Crompton time to find his receivers.

4. The SEC is known for its defenses. Is Tennessee’s defense your typical SEC juggernaut or are they kind of soft?

The Vols’ aren’t soft, but they aren’t one of the better defensive units in the SEC. Tennessee has a lot of talent at linebacker and the secondary will be among the best in the nation. The defensive line however, is a cause for concern.

The Vols’ will start Dan Williams and Demonte Bolden at the tackle positions. Williams is 6-3, 310 and has a lot of ability but has yet to live up to his potential. Like Williams, Bolden has a lot of talent but it hasn’t been realized as yet.

Bolden, 6-6, 290 has shown flashes of total dominance at times but both he and Williams need to step up their level of play. Depth is a major issue at the tackle spot, with Walter Fisher and Donald Langley providing the only real options the Vols’ have.

Fisher is a converted defensive end and Langley has been suspended for the first game due to class attendance issues. Chase Nelson was penciled in as a backup who was going to see a lot of playing time, but he was injured during camp and will miss the entire 2008 season.

Defensive end is less of a concern and actually is an area of good depth. Robert Ayers, 6-3, 270 and Wes Brown, 6-4, 255 will start against the Bruins. Both are very capable pass rushers and have enough speed to chase down runners.

Linebackers Rico McCoy, Ellix Wilson and JC transfer Gerald Williams will be a solid unit for the Vols’ this season. Tennessee has a wealth of depth at the linebacker position and any number of players could see time in 2008.

The secondary is led by Eric Berry, 5-11, 195 and one of the premier players in the SEC, if not the nation. Berry has 4.3 speed and hits like a freight train and he’ll occupy the free safety spot. SS Demetrice Morely returns after missing the 2007 season. Morley, 6-2, 195 was one of the most heralded defensive backs in the nation when he signed with the Vols in 2005.

It’s hard to say which two players will man the corners because Tennessee has a lot of options at that position. Quite possibly Antonio Gaines and Marsalous Johnson could start, but so could Dennis Rogan, Deangelo Willingham, Nevin McKenzie or Stephaun Raines.

5. It seems as if Phil Fulmer is on the hot seat in Knoxville. How good of a coach is he?

Fulmer is always on the hot seat at Tennessee because the expectations are so high. After winning the national championship in 1998, Tennessee has had some very talented teams, especially in 2001 when they could have easily returned to the BCS championship game.

Over the past six seasons, the Vols’ haven’t played with the same level of consistency that fans expect. Fulmer is an exceptional recruiter but he isn’t the best x’s and o’s guy. He needs to have talented assistant coaches around him to truly be successful.

Fulmer is an excellent motivator and he’s not afraid to take chances, but there are times when he’s made poor decisions that have led to losses. Fulmer just signed a contract extension and even if the Vols’ have a bad season in 2008, he’ll still be the head coach next year.

6. What’s your predictions for the UCLA-Tennessee game?

This has been as even a series as could possibly be, with each team winning five games and tying two over the past 41 years. Historically, Tennessee hasn’t played well on the west coast, losing last season’s opener against California in embarrassing fashion.

But the Bruins are entering this game with some decided disadvantages. Losing both Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan leaves inexperienced and untested Kevin Craft to start at QB for UCLA. The offensive line is in serious trouble due to injuries and lacks depth.

Tennessee does have issues along their defensive line and a generally unproven starting QB, but the Vols’ have a wealth of talent and will have no less than five players on the field that are future NFL draft picks.

Tennessee will defeat the Bruins 27-10 and frankly, it could get uglier than that. UCLA just doesn’t have the talent or the depth to match up with Tennessee.