The five guys who started the last six games of 2007 are back for 2008. Even with one of them (center Josh McNeil) sidelined this spring, the Vols simply plugged another guy who played a lot last fall (guard Vladimir Richard) into the lineup and didn't miss a beat.
That level of familiarity, according to senior right tackle Ramon Foster, is going to be a big plus for Tennessee's 2008 offense.
“It's very important,” he said this week. “The five guys we have right now – not even including Josh McNeil – have pretty good chemistry. We know each other and we know this offense to a certain extent, at least how the plays are called and what's going on. It's very important for us and for the team.”
The fact the linemen are familiar with one another is especially important since they are NOT familiar with the new West-Coast attack first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson is installing this spring. Having a dependable guy next to you during the learning experience is a real benefit.
“That's very important,” Foster said. “You know he knows what's going on also. You don't have to do so much thinking and communicating now. You just go out and play ball.”
Foster started every game last fall at right tackle. McNeil started every game at center. Anthony Parker started every game at left guard. Chris Scott started the first eight games at right guard and the last six at left tackle. McClendon started the last six games at right guard. All are back for '08.
With McNeil sidelined following minor surgery, Parker has been playing center this spring, with Richard filling in for Parker at left guard.
In addition to five offensive linemen with starting experience, Tennessee returns Jeff Cottam, who started six games at tight end last fall. Also back is Luke Stocker, who played enough as a backup tight end to catch four passes in 2007. Foster believes the return of Cottam and Stocker is a real advantage, even though Cottam has missed most of spring practice with a fractured leg.
“It's not only big that us five (linemen) are back, but the tight ends, too,” Foster said. “We played pretty good with them when we had Jeff Cottam and Luke Stocker earlier this spring. We've been doing pretty good together. That's good, knowing what the other guy is doing and not having to communicate so much.”
The communication across Tennessee's offensive line must have been pretty good in 2007 because it surrendered just four sacks all season.
“The key was Erik did a great job of getting rid of the ball,” Foster said. “He put us in good situations. Also, (Line) Coach (Greg) Adkins and (Head) Coach (Phillip) Fulmer taught us really well on our protections and what-not. Then we just went out and executed.”
While Tennessee's passing attack was productive in '07, the ground game fell short of expectations for the third year in a row. The Vols ranked ninth among the 12 SEC teams in rushing offense, averaging just 144 yards per game.
So, what's the key to improving the run game in '08?
“Taking the challenge,” Foster said. “I think we're going to do it this year. We've taken the challenge and we're trying to improve from there. We want to help put Arian (Foster) and the rest of the running back stable in a great position this year.”
Arian Foster looked very good in last Saturday's scrimmage, rushing nine times for 45 yards. After running for 1,193 yards as a junior, he appears headed for a banner year in 2008.
“Yeah, he does,” Ramon Foster said. “I think all of them are, actually. I think we've got one of the best running stables in the country. They've got a lot of good players back there.”
The Vols have a lot of good players up front, too. And those good players have a lot of familiarity. That could be a deadly combination this fall.