Down in the Valley ...

Phil Fulmer has his hiking boots on.

Tennessee's head coach viewed college football from the mountain top in 1998, when his Vols won the national championship. He saw the game from the opposite perspective in 2005, when his program slipped to 5-6.

After spending a few unhappy months in the valley, Fulmer believes a reasonably productive spring has his program headed back up the mountain. He borrowed this analogy from his wife.

"Vicky told me back in January that sometimes before you really appreciate the peaks – and we've been on a lot of peaks – you've got to go into the valley," Fulmer said. "That's how I've described it to our football team. We're doing everything we can to fight and scratch and work and take every little step we can to get ourselves back to where we want to be … and that's at the peak."

The Vols made some progress in spring practice but they must make considerably more between now and September, since UT plays dangerous California (Sept. 2) and talent-rich Florida (Sept. 16) in its first two games. As a result, Fulmer sees the coming months as crucial.

"The summer program will be one of the deciding factors on what kind of football team we will have – how hard they (players) use this summer cycle to work," the head man said. "I've seen young people change their bodies during the summer, particularly young guys. We have a number of young guys, and they need to have a great off-season program."

Fulmer believes the Vols will work hard this summer, mainly because they worked hard all spring. He finds that very encouraging.

"You can describe the spring as a success for one reason: Our kids learned how to work again as hard as they're supposed to and at the tempo they're supposed to," Fulmer said. "If we'll stay that course and improve at the positions we need to improve at, we'll get there … whether it's next year or whenever. We certainly expect to compete for the championship every year at Tennessee."

The Vols were supposed to compete for championships in 2005. Consecutive midseason losses to Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Notre Dame wrecked those dreams, however, and shook the players' confidence. Fulmer can relate.

"My confidence was shaken at the end of last year," he conceded. "I'm sure EVERYBODY'S confidence was shaken at the end of last year. We're all climbing back out of that valley together. I think they're feeling more confident in each other right now."

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