Except for the middle finger Johnny Cash raised in a 1970 concert at San Quentin, the right pinky of…
Ainge is UT's early MVP
The MVP is obvious: Erik Ainge. Despite playing with a broken little finger on his throwing hand, Ainge is completing 66 percent of his passes and he's doing it with a pedestrian running game and a young set of wideouts. Ainge is the primary reason the Vols are averaging almost 35 points per game against a tough schedule. Lucas Taylor has been one of UT's two best players. He leads the team in receptions and receiving yards. He's got seven catches of at least 20 yards. Robert Meachem had eight catches for at least 20 yards through four games last year. Taylor is averaging 95.5 receiving yards per game, which would rank in the top three on UT's all-time list. The Vols have never had a receiver average at least 100 yards. Kicker Daniel Lincoln has been the most pleasant surprise. He's made all eight field goal attempts. He's hasn't really been put under the gun to hit a clutch fourth-quarter kick, but you've got more confidence now that he would convert than you did in August when he missed three straight during a key scrimmage. Tennessee's most disappointing player has been strong safety Jonathan Hefney. He had over 100 tackles last year and led the team with five interceptions while ranking third in the SEC in punt returns. Hefney is missing tackles, seems out of position at times and was awful on punt returns against Arkansas State (four for minus-17 yards). While UT coaches argue that Hefney is, indeed, a better safety than cornerback, perhaps Hefney is trying to compensate for a youthful secondary. Free safety Eric Berry is a true freshman. Cornerback Marsalous Johnson is a first-year starter. And the other corners – true freshman Brent Vinson or junior college transfer DeAngelo Willingham – have limited experience. Maybe that's put more heat on Hefney to make big plays. Maybe he's trying to be two places at once, never a good idea for a defensive back. Defensive tackle J.T. Mapu isn't nearly the player he was in 2003, when he recorded 26 tackles and displayed All-SEC potential. While UT coaches bragged that he was stronger and quicker and in better shape than in 2006, Mapu has been unproductive and got benched in favor of a redshirt sophomore. He has struggled to get off blocks and make plays. It's hard to term Jarod Parrish a disappointment. He did have three interceptions in the spring and earned a starting job, but he'd done nothing in his first four seasons and it was a bit unfair to compare him to former Vol Chris White, who did nothing until leading the nation in interceptions as a senior in 1985. While smart, Parrish doesn't have the athleticism to play in space against athletic teams. SURPRISE: VOLS MAKING PLAYS IN PASSING GAME So you say Tennessee isn't throwing the ball downfield. You say the Vols have had a shortage of big plays in the passing game. Let's go to the tape. Last season, UT had 14 pass plays of at least 20 yards through four games. Meachem had eight, Jayson Swain five and Bret Smith one. This season, UT has 13 – that's right, 13 – pass plays of at least 20 yards. Taylor has seven, Austin Rogers four and Josh Briscoe two. FULMER'S BEST 7 BETTER THAN MAJORS' Anytime Phillip Fulmer is struggling, you can expect comparisons to Johnny Majors. It was recently suggested to me that Majors' best seven years at Tennessee would equal Fulmer's best seven years at Tennessee. Not quite. Fulmer's best seven: 76-13 for a winning percentage of .853. Majors' best seven: 65-16-5 for a winning percentage of .784. Fulmer coached three more games and won 11 more. Fulmer won two SEC titles and one national championship during his best seven years. He would have won two more SEC titles if not for the SEC Championship game. Majors won three SEC titles but never had the best outright record during his best seven years. He had two ties and beat out Florida because the Gators were on probation. In Fulmer's best seven years, he won at least 10 all seven times; Majors won at least 10 twice. Here's a closer look at the best seven for Fulmer and Majors Fulmer 1995: 11-1 1996: 102 1997: 11-2 1998: 13-0 2001: 11-2 2003: 10-3 2004: 10-3 Majors 1981: 8-4 1983: 9-3 1985: 9-1-2 1987: 10-2-1 1989: 11-1 1990: 9-2-2 1991: 9-3 COKER, FOSTER HAVE DIFFERENT STYLES Each time I talk to a coach, I'm reminded I'm not a coach. But I do think this: LaMarcus Coker is a better runner in a one-back set and with a zone blocking scheme than Arian Foster. Foster is a better back with a lead blocker and an isolation blocking scheme. Why do I think this? In five starts at the end of the 2005 season, Foster averaged almost 150 rushing yards per game. He had a lead blocker most of the time. Coker is a better cutback runner, a must in a zone blocking scheme.
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