For the past decade anyone looking to elude an IRS audit or avoid alimony payments could have found the perfect hiding place in Tennessee's offensive backfield. Playing fullback for the Vols was the ideal way to escape being noticed.
That may be changing in 2009, however. Vol coaches rave about the potential of junior Kevin Cooper (6-0, 245 pounds) and sophomore Austin Johnson (6-2, 234), calling fullback one of the Vols' strongest positions.
You won't find corroboration of their abilities on the 2008 stat sheet, however. Cooper carried five times for 10 yards and caught seven passes for another 42 yards. That's 12 touches in 12 games. Johnson, meanwhile, has yet to get a carry or a catch in a varsity game.
Both Cooper and Johnson figure more prominently, however, in the new pro-style attack being installed by first-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. That was obvious in spring practice. Although neither player carried the ball in the three major scrimmages, each was active in the passing game. Johnson caught seven balls for 27 yards – one of the catches coming after he lined up at wide receiver. He could be a real weapon out of the backfield. Cooper reeled in three passes for 8 yards and also showed sure hands.
More help could be forthcoming from sophomore Ben Bartholomew. The 6-2, 250-pound sophomore moved to tight end during spring practice, but still will line up at fullback occasionally.
Cooper, Johnson and Bartholomew were 1-2-3 at fullback last fall, so the cast of characters hasn't changed. They're a year older and more experienced, however, and they looked very comfortable in the new offensive scheme.
Using my usual scale of Plus-2 (significantly improved), Plus-1 (somewhat improved), 0 (about the same), Minus-1 (somewhat weaker) and Minus-2 (significantly weaker), I'd have to give the fullback position a Plus-2 rating. These guys had better pay their taxes because the days of the hidden fullback at UT appear to be ending.