If you check out Tennessee's 1,000-yard rushers over the past 25 years, you'll notice an interesting trend: Virtually every one of them benefited from running behind an exceptional fullback.
Reggie Cobb (1,197 yards) had William Howard in 1987.
Chuck Webb (1,236 yards) had Roland Poles in 1989.
Tony Thompson (1,261 yards) had Poles in 1990.
Charlie Garner (1,161 yards) had Mario Brunson in 1993.
Jay Graham (1,438 yards) had Chester Ford in 1995.
Jamal Lewis (1,364 yards) had Shawn Bryson in 1997.
Travis Henry (1,314 yards) had Will Bartholomew in 2000.
Travis Stephens (1,464 yards) had Bartholomew in 2001.
Gerald Riggs (1,107 yards) and Cedric Houston (1,005 yards) had Cory Anderson in 2004.
Montario Hardesty (1,345 yards) had Kevin Cooper in 2009.
Tauren Poole (1,034 yards) had Cooper and Channing Fugate in 2010.
The only 1,000-yard rusher of the past quarter-century who didn't run behind a quality fullback was Arian Foster. He gained 1,193 yards in a 2007 Vol attack that featured two exceptional tight ends, Chris Brown and Jeff Cottam, instead of a fullback.
As the 2012 season approaches, however, the fullback position appears on the verge of extinction. With Fugate now playing linebacker, the Vols have just one scholarship fullback on their roster, fifth-year senior Ben Bartholomew. He may be the last of a vanishing breed ... the Tennessee fullback.
Although he has the classic fullback build (6-2, 251), Bartholomew spent spring practice filling a hybrid position that combines the duties of a fullback, an H-back and a tight end.
With the Vols returning three quality tight ends — Mychal Rivera, Cameron Clear and Brendan Downs — you wonder if there will be a role for an old fullback this fall. Apparently, there will be.
"There is a definite spot for Bart on this football team and in this offense," Vol tight ends coach Charlie Coiner said recently, "because the guy is so smart and can do so many things."
Learn his responsibilities with minimal practice, for instance.
"We've got those two young ones, Cam (Clear) and Brendan (Downs), getting most of the reps," Coiner said, "so I'll stand back there with Ben — who has had a million reps — and just talk him through it because he doesn't need the reps they do."
Bartholomew unseated Fugate as the No. 1 fullback one game into the 2011 season and started seven of the final 11 games. He never carried the ball but recorded six catches for 54 yards. He also established himself as a team leader heading into his senior season.
"There is always a place for senior leadership, for somebody to put his arm around a young guy's shoulder and calm things down," Coiner said. "Ben's that calming influence. He's extremely smart. He's a good leader and a good person, and I'm glad to have him."
|Channing Fugate's career as a fullback appears to be over.|
Likewise, Bartholomew is glad to be a Vol. His older brother, Will, was Tennessee's starting fullback in 2000 and 2001. His grandfather, Sam, was the blocking back for the the 1939 Vols.
Sam played on Tennessee teams that went 6-3-1, 11-0 and 10-1 during his three varsity seasons. Will played for teams that went 13-0, 9-3, 8-4 and 11-2. Counting a redshirt year, Ben's first four seasons on The Hill were disappointing ... 5-7, 7-6, 6-7 and 5-7. He's determined to go out with a bang in 2012.
"We've set goals as individuals to get better at one or two things," he said. "Mine is to be more under control when I'm blocking, to cover the man up so I don't get slung around and fall on the ground. That's been my personal goal. As a team, our goal has been getting the run game going and being aggressive downhill with that."
Sam Bartholomew was a team captain in 1939 and Will filled the same role in 2001. Ben appears to be captain material, as well, although he shrugs off the notion that he's worthy.
"I think a lot of guys look up to all of the seniors," he said. "As someone who's been here for a while and has history, I try to bring some tradition and definitely some leadership to the team."
Tennessee's ground game was pathetic in 2011, averaging an SEC-worst 90.1 rushing yards per contest. The mantra all spring was developing a more "physical" running attack. So far, so good. With Bartholomew contributing a few key blocks from his fullback spot, Orange tailback Marlin Lane rushed for 106 yards in Saturday's spring game.
"We're trying to be as aggressive as possible," Bartholomew said. "Even if it's a toss sweep or a reverse, we want to get downhill in our blocks up front and for the fullback to be very physical with low pads."
Based on what he saw during spring practice, Bartholomew is convinced the ground game will be significantly better in 2012 than it was in 2011.
"I definitely think it's going to improve a lot," he said. "The O-line has done an incredible job, the running backs are running really physical. I'm excited to see what's going to happen."
That's because Tennessee's offense is playing at a faster tempo — hustling in and out of the huddle, then initiating the play without delay.
"We're doing the same things," Bartholomew said. "We're just doing them better and playing faster. If you just get up there and run the plays, I believe it can eliminate some of the mistakes from thinking too much. I think we're reacting really well and playing really well."
Interestingly enough, the Vols are doing so with a fullback in the lineup ... for one more year, at least.