"At fullback," Vol sophomore Channing Fugate
said, "it's like 'There's the linebacker. Go get him.'"
Fugate did such a good job getting the linebacker as a true freshman last fall that he beat out senior Kevin Cooper by midseason and started five of the Vols' final six games. Even Fugate was surprised by the accomplishment.
"Kevin's a good fullback, and I thought I was going to be his backup the whole year ... help out on special teams as much as I can," he recalled. "I was ready to do that."
When Cooper was suspended for Game 8 at South Carolina, however, Fugate got his first career start. He didn't get to carry the ball but he caught one pass for a four-yard gain and blocked like a madman. Cooper would never see the starting lineup again.
"That game he missed," Fugate explained, "I just tried to go out there and show the coaches I can do it, too."
Basically, the South Carolina game was Fugate's mid-term exam, and he aced it in front of Tennessee's offensive coaches.
"Yeah, they knew I could catch passes," he recalled. "They wanted to see if I could go in there and block a mike linebacker, if I could be physical enough to be a fullback in the SEC."
Although Cooper returned the following week, Fugate started Game 9 at Memphis, helping the Vols roll to a 50-14 victory. He continued his quality blocking in a 52-14 Game 10 blowout of Ole Miss, a Game 11 win at Vanderbilt and a Game 12 defeat of Kentucky, punctuating the last one with a 17-yard catch/run vs. the Wildcats.
Fugate's good hands were no surprise. He caught 45 passes as a sophomore at Breathitt County High in Jackson, Ky.
"We threw a lot of balls to the running backs in high school, so I was used to catching it," he recalled. "When I came to the camps here that's one thing they told me: They like to get the ball to the fullbacks out in the flat. They don't run you a whole lot but you can get some balls thrown to you."
The coaches weren't exaggerating. Fugate didn't get a single carry all last season, even though he ran for 6,111 yards in his final three years at Breathitt County High.
"I was a running back in high school," he recalled. "I had 3,000 yards one year."
That was his junior season, when he ran for 3,052 yards and 36 touchdowns in leading his team to a runnerup finish in the state playoffs.
Fugate's freshman stats as a Vol were underwhelming - 0 rushing yards and 21 receiving yards on two catches. Still, the fact he bumped a senior two-year starter out of the lineup indicates just how much Tennessee's coaches respect his blocking.
"It's just coming out here and being physical that gets you noticed as a fullback," he said.
Fugate graduated early from high school and enrolled at UT in time to participate in spring practice last year. Naturally, he's feeling a lot better about himself this spring than last spring. Five college starts tend to do that for a guy.
"It helped a whole lot," he said. "It boosted my confidence a little bit, showed the coaches trusted me to be out there."
After carrying around 250 pounds on his 6-2 frame last season, he's a tad thinner than that these days.
"I've actually dropped a little weight since last fall," he said. "I had some bad weight on me that I lost this offseason. I'm about 245 right now."
Although his weight has decreased, his power has increased, thanks to new strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery.
"It's gone up a lot," Fugate said. "Coach Mac has helped us out tremendously. One thing I'm trying to work on is my squat. It went up 55 pounds. At fullback, you've got to make contact, then drive with your legs, so the squat's important."
Although tailback Tauren Poole rushed for better than 1,000 yards last season, Tennessee ground attack stalled at times in 2010. Fugate is determined to make sure that doesn't happen again in 2011.
"My goal is for us as a team to get better and be as physical as we possibly can be," he said. "That will open the run game up, and the run game will open the passing game up, and everything will be clicking."
Playing quarterback for Tennessee is a complicated job. Playing fullback, on the other hand, is pretty simple.