- Coaches are still waiting for a star to emerge at defensive end. Candidates include juniors Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Wardlow, sophomore Robert Ayers, junior-college transfer Walter Fisher, and redshirt freshman Wes Brown. Among them they have a total of zero starts for UT. It’s looking like Ayers and defensive tackle Turk McBride will start at the ends against California.
- More stuff you never knew, this time about the Florida Gators, courtesy of Fulmer’s Belly.
- If you haven’t visited in awhile, go check out the SportsAnimal’s interview page. Lots of good stuff there, including an interview with Arian Foster. One excerpt:
Q: You averaged almost 150 yards in your five starts, would that be pretty unrealistic to try to do that for an entire season?
A: [Pregnant pause.] Shhhh . . . um . . . I don’t . . . I don’t . . . I really don’t think so. Well, depending on the amount of carries that coach Cutcliffe and the staff allow me to get, I believe I can go out and play this game the way it’s supposed to be played.
Excellent answer with just the right mixture of confidence and humility.
- GoVolsXtra.com’s John Adams analyzes the impact of various scenarios of the 2006 season on coach Fulmer’s job security.
- The Vols are apparently going with game captains this season instead of naming them now for an entire season. I like the let’s-change-all-the-little-things attitude the coaches are using to distinguish this season from last season, but I don’t know about this one. Any thoughts?
Archive for the 'Coach Fulmer' Category
The Vols finished up the last of two-a-days yesterday with some scrimmage work in preparation of another full scrimmage Saturday. UTSports.com has practice pics and video.
Don’t miss the video interview with coach Fulmer, during which he fails, for one very brief moment, to contain his entusiasm. “Blah, blah, blah . . . blah, blah,” and then, out of nowhere, a bounce, a smile, and a “I’m . . . kind of excited.” At least that’s what I think he said. Then it was back to blah.
Last week, I capped off two weeks’ worth of discretionary time re-examining the cadaver of the 2005 Tennessee Volunteer football season. Two full weeks of pessimism, criticism, and general negativity.
What was I thinking?
Well, I did it to show why I’m optimistic about the upcoming season. The full explanation is further down the page, but here’s a teaser:
Before I reveal what was going on in the dark recesses of my bothered mind, let’s recap:
- August, 2005: No. 3 Vols indulge in pre-season fantasies of playing in the Rose Bowl for the National Championship.
- September 3, 2005: Vols come down to earth in unimpressive 17-10 win over UAB.
- September 17, 2005: Special teams debacle costs No. 4 Vols a 16-7 loss to No. 6 archrival Florida.
- September 26, 2005: No. 11 Tennessee shocks No. 3 LSU with 30-27 come-from-way-behind Rally in the Valley giving Vol fans the sole highlight of a troubled season.
- October 1, 2005: No. 10 Vols produce efficient but boring 27-10 win over Ole Miss.
- October 8, 2005: No. 8 Vols lose 27-14 to No. 5 Georgia in a penalty-plagued field position nightmare.
- October 22, 2005: Two fumbles inside the ten and a muffed punt at midfield costs the No. 17 Vols a 6-3 loss to No. 5 Alabama.
- October 29, 2005: No. 23 Vols lose 16-15 to Steve Spurrier due primarily to a fumble within a blade of fescue at the goal line.
- November 5, 2005: Two ships pass in the night as the staggering Tennessee program is soundly defeated by a revitalized Notre Dame program hitting its stride.
- November 12, 2005: The unranked Volunteers need another game-saving effort by Rick Clausen in relief of Erik Ainge to beat unranked Memphis 20-16.
- November 19, 2005: The end of the world as we know it. Failure to convert on 4th down and inches within three yards of the goal line results in the Vols’ first loss to Vanderbilt (28-24) in 22 years, ensuring the first losing season in 17 years and the first year without a bowl game in 16 years.
- November 26, 2005: The unranked Volunteers defeat Kentucky 27-8, marking the End of an Error.
A complete and utter flame-out.
What happened? What exactly was the root cause of the disappointing 2005 season? Here’s the lineup of suspects:
Lack of or improper focus
- Lack of character and/or discipline. From a player using his cell phone during half time of a bowl game several years ago to the rash of arrests and court appearances leading up to the 2005 season, individual and team discipline has declined.
- Me first. Many UT fans wondered whether running back Jamal Lewis gave the team his all during his last season or whether he was saving himself for the NFL. Receiver Kelley Washington pretty much came right out and said as much by declaring himself “The Future” while still a Tennessee Volunteer.
- Penalties and errors. Blocked punts, muffed punts, botched fake punts, missed field goals, poor kick and punt coverage, interceptions in end zones, fumbles at critical times, and the list goes on and on.
Conventional wisdom coaching philosophies
- Tall, fast, and chiseled guys are necessarily good receivers.
- Rotating eight or nine receivers keeps them fresh, which must be a good thing.
- Save it for the games. Avoid getting players hurt at all costs by utilizing a plethora of green, no-contact jerseys and by practicing at less than game speed.
- Bigger is always better on the offensive line.
- Two QB System? No worries.
- Special teams, oh yeah, we ought to work on those, too.
- Embracing the hype. The normally stoic Phillip Fulmer openly embraced the pre-season No. 3 ranking in 2005, wanting to ensure that when they did get through the SEC slate unscathed they would not be denied an opportunity to play for the national championship.
- The Spotlight Effect. UT, both individually and collectively, generally under perform when expectations are high and over perform when expectations are low.
- Strength of schedule. Nearly half of Tennessee’s 2005 opponents were ranked in the top five at the time they played them.
- The demise of home-field advantage.
- Season-ending injuries to key players.
The Cause: One of the Above
So which of the above factors caused the losing season?
If you said all of the above, you’d be mostly right, but I think there’s an even better answer:
One of the above.
In his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell attempts to explain “social epidemics,” or sudden changes from one state to another. In Gladwell’s own words:
The best way to understand the dramatic transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.
Think, for a moment, about an epidemic of measles in a kindergarten class. One child brings in the virus. It spreads to every other child in the class in a matter of days. And then, within a week or so, it completely dies out and none of the children will ever get measles again. That’s typical behavior for epidemics: they can blow up and then die out really quickly, and even the smallest change — like one child with a virus — can get them started. My argument is that it is also the way that change often happens in the rest of the world. Things can happen all at once, and little changes can make a huge difference.
Okay, so boiled down, the basic premise of the Tipping Point is this: (1) ideas can be as contagious as viruses; (2) like viruses, little things can grow in geometric progressions into big things; and (3) all these little things can lead to a tipping point at which one more little thing causes a great, noticeable change.
Application to the 2005 Season
The Tennessee Volunteer 2005 football season was the culmination of a lot of little things thrown into the cauldron until one more little thing tipped the whole blasted thing over, ending in catastrophe and scattering football helmets all over the end zone.
Sure, a player checking his cell phone for messages during half time of a bowl game is a bit troubling, but it’s just a little thing, right? Or was it a symptom of a social epidemic infecting the football team with the idea that there really wasn’t much of a consequence for a lack of focus? Did such an attitude spread exponentially and lead to a rash of arrests, a passel of players more concerned about the NFL than their current college team, and a host of penalties, fumbles, interceptions, and other errors on the field?
Could a catastrophic change come from a notion so mundane that you can’t even identify its origin? Exactly when did we start thinking that big, tall, fast guys necessarily made excellent receivers or that rotating eight or nine of them during a game in order to wear out the defenders was a good idea? Exactly when did we start thinking that two quarterbacks were better than one or that practicing at less than game speed and dressing key players in green, no-contact jerseys sufficiently prepared the team for actual games? Just when did having the heaviest offensive line in the SEC become the goal?
By 2005, those seemingly small ideas were epidemic within the Tennessee Volunteer football program. And it was not a good time to be sick. The plague-ridden 2005 Volunteers embraced their No. 3 ranking, mostly ignoring the daunting schedule, the recent demise of UT’s home-field advantage, and the team’s vulnerability to the Spotlight Effect. Season-ending injuries to players Jason Allen and Gerald Riggs didn’t help, either.
The 2005 team lost one game due to a special teams debacle. They lost another because of a penalty-plagued field position nightmare. They lost two more by a total of 4 points due to three fumbles inside the ten yard line. Another loss was by 4 points due in part to a failure to convert on 4th and inches within three yards of the goal line.
Little things can lead to catastrophic change.
Especially in a game of inches.
Application to the 2006 Season
So what was I thinking when I decided to poke and prod at the corpse of the 2005 season? I was thinking that if the red plastic Don’t-Spill-the-Beans cauldron can tip one way, it can also tip the other.
Coach Fulmer was ridiculed when he characterized the season as the Perfect Storm. Some media and fans interpreted this statement as an excuse, but I took it more as an explanation, and I never got the feeling that Fulmer was denying responsibility for the outcome.
No, I think Fulmer was reading the Tipping Point. Once 2005 had breathed its last, Fulmer and company were talking about the little things. If you’ve been keeping up with fall practice, reading the articles and listening to interviews, you’re hearing coaches and players talk about “the little things” all of the time. Here’s just a sampling of the little things they’re trying to reclaim:
- Character/Discipline. This off-season was quiet, relatively speaking anyway, when it came to off the field incidents. When two players got into trouble within days of each other for the first time this summer, Fulmer reportedly went ballistic. He dismissed the player who’d used up his second chances and suspended the other who’d gotten in trouble for the first time in five years with the program. Fulmer later kicked promising young freshman tight end Lee Smith off the team after Smith made the non-sports page twice in one week. He suspended another pending investigation of a stupid incident involving a toy gun on the highway. While it appears the team still has some ground to cover on this front, it does appear to have improved. The coaching staff, at least, is responding differently, and that’s a good sign.
- Good receivers make good receivers. After having rejuvenated an under-achieving stable of running backs, Trooper Taylor has been assigned to repeat the feat with the receiving corps this year. The receivers are catching 100 balls a day. Footballs, tennis balls, and even some bricks. Yes, bricks. They are not wearing green jerseys. The rotation this year will consist of five receivers instead of eight or nine so that they can better develop chemistry with the quarterback. They are digging batteries out of buckets full of rice to develop grip strength. Word is, it’s all beginning to pay off.
- Practice. The spring story line earlier this year was that the Vols were re-learning how to practice. Essentially, that meant that they were practicing with tempo at game speed. This theme continues in the fall. Players receive a tongue-lashing if they simply walk the last couple of steps to the next practice drill. Even the quarterbacks have gone live without green jerseys in at least one scrimmage so far this fall practice. The offense is dictating tempo, and special teams is getting the attention it deserves.
- Big is good, but speed is better on the offensive line. The offensive linemen have lost weight. Lots of it. Chris Scott is the poster boy for the Vols’ weight loss campaign, having lost 60 pounds since last season. All of them have lost at least fifteen pounds. The goal is to better prepare them to get out quickly and block on screens, and the reports are that they are indeed quicker this fall.
- Fear the Two QB System. Erik Ainge is the starting quarterback. He is getting all of the practice reps with the first team. Even with promising QB Jonathon Crompton pushing him, the coaches are downplaying any hint of a controversy.
The 2006 Volunteers, led by coach Fulmer and the rest of the coaching staff are in the process of focusing on and correcting a myriad of little things. Maybe, just maybe, they can re-infect the team and create an epidemic of positive ideas. If successful, perhaps they can reach another tipping point this season, this time in a positive direction.
Packing it up
And now that the corpse of 2005 has been exhumed, dissected, poked, prodded, and otherwise fully examined, we can now officially slide it into the morgue drawer and forget about it.
The 2005 season shall from this point forward be referred to only as The Season of Which We Do Not Speak.
Just a quick note, GoVolsXtra.com is reporting that coach Fulmer has kicked freshman signee Lee Smith off the team after his arrest for drunk driving this morning and has suspended defensive back Marsalous Johnson four games for pointing a toy gun at an off-duty law enforcement officer on I-40.
As for Marsalous, he has been suspended from the football team for the first four games regardless of the outcome of his court appearance for not following my instructions to walk away from any potential trouble. When classes begin (Aug. 23), he will be required to move back into the dorm and return his car to his home as well as performing 50 hours of community service. His practice status on the team will be as a member of the scout team.
Any reinstatement of Marsalous depends on his attitude and demonstration of accountability.
Regarding Lee, I have made the decision that he be dismissed from the football team. I have great respect for the Smith family and for Daryl as a former Volunteer. It is my sincere hope that this will be an opportunity for Lee to mature and get his life in order.
Apparently, some of the facts of Johnson’s situation are in question. He is denying that he pointed the gun at the officer.
This would be getting even more attention if it weren’t for even bigger news out of Oklahoma.
By late October, the Tennessee Volunteers had lost to its three biggest rivals. Special teams goofs had cost the team the Florida game. The Georgia loss was directly attributable to a punt coverage breakdown and a slew of penalties resulting in awful field position for most of the game. Against Alabama, the opportunity cost of two fumbles inside the ten and a muffed punt at midfield combined to result in yet another heartbreaking loss.
The Volunteer Nation began its root cause analysis, and everybody had their opinions. Doesn’t winning necessarily follow excellent recruiting classes? Was it just fluke after fluke after fluke? Was it just because four out of six opponents were ranked in the top 5 at the time we played them? Was it the Spotlight Effect? Was it the season-ending injury to Jason Allen?
One thing we did know for sure: when Steve Spurrier returned to Neyland Stadium for the Volunteers’ next game, he’d be bringing his bag of tricks. While the Volunteer offense seemed unlikely to encounter the suspicious powdery substance, the defense might be able to induce Darth Visor to grimaces like never before because this time his Storm Troopers were armored in garnet and black instead of blue and orange.
Rick Clausen’s excellent performance in the LSU game was growing smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, and on this day it would melt completely into the horizon. Clausen got the start, but threw an interception on his first pass of the second offensive series. The Gamecocks capitalized on the mistake with a touchdown three plays later.
Ainge then came in and drove the team 72 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown. On the next offensive possession, a possible touchdown pass to Jayson Swain was ruled out of bounds, but the team did drive 32 yards for a field goal. Arian Foster was running exceptionally well, and the offense appeared to have found its rhythm with Ainge.
Like most good news this season, it was short-lived.
The offense failed to capitalize on two South Carolina fumbles in the first half. When the Gamecocks fumbled on their own 30 yard line, the Vols lost a yard on three plays and then missed a field goal. When SC later fumbled on their own 18, the Tennessee offense drove 18 yards only to fumble inside the one yard line.
Look at the mess on that drive chart on both sides of the ball. Interception. Fumble. Field goal missed. Field goal missed. Safety. Fumble. Fumble. Interception.
The Vols were ahead at the half, both in points and in lost opportunities.
Britton Colquitt put together a pretty nice game with six punts for 226 yards. Three of his punts were inside the five yard line and another was inside the 20. You could convince yourself that Arian Foster also had a good game if you were able to repress the memory of his fumble within a blade of fescue of the goal line. He averaged almost six yards on 25 carries for a total of 150 yards.
In the end, though, Spurrier had worked his mojo against the Vols yet again and strolled of Rocky Top with a 16-15 victory.
Might Tennessee, who began the season with national championship aspirations, had just lost to the perennial 4th-in-the-SEC-East South Carolina Gamecocks. They had fallen to 3-4 overall and 2-4 in the SEC. They were 0-3 in the SEC East, which they had been pre-season favorites to win.
The horror of the loss was captured best by GoVolsXtra’s John Adams:
You can’t comprehend the magnitude of the loss unless you know a little something about the winners.
South Carolina lost by 23 points to Alabama and by 41 to Auburn. It ranks 111th in the country in rushing and 85th in rushing defense.
The Gamecocks start two walk-ons on offense. They lost arguably their best player, wide receiver/quarterback/running back Syvelle Newton, to a season-ending injury last week.
Their injury situation only got worse against the Vols. They lost two more wide receivers — Carlos Thomas and Noah Whiteside — to game-ending injuries in the first half.
With all that stacked against them, the Gamecocks would have to play a mistake-free game to have a chance, right?
Not hardly. They lost two fumbles and threw an interception in the first half. They were penalized 10 times.
And still, UT had lost.
Things had gone from downright Rosy to downright ugly on Rocky Top. Players were beginning to openly fuss at each other on the field. Both quarterbacks were dazed, glassy-eyed, and exasperated. Someone painted “Fire Randy Sanders, please!” on the Rock on the UT campus, echoing the chant by a pocket of fans toward the end of the game. Local radio reported that some fans were throwing objects at the players as they left the field.
Having had an emotional meeting with his family immediately following the game (audio link), Sanders fell on his sword the following Tuesday. He would serve out the rest of the season, but would give up the offensive coordinator role and play calling duties. Players responded to the news with shock and hostility, some engaging in a full-on rant with media microphones recording it all. Many media guys and bloggers could relate, some saying they had the wrong guy or that it was a good start.
Not pretty. Not pretty at all.
And it wasn’t over yet.
Two-minute drill: More SEC Media Days, receivers catching bricks, and behind the scenes with Fulmer’s stingerFriday, July 28th, 2006
Well, the SEC Media Days has come to an end, I think, and the college sports blogosphere is sorting through the rubble. Here’s a couple of shiny objects that have distinguished themselves from the pile, at least from the VFRT perspective:
Yes, the media placed the Vols third in the SEC East. No big surprise there. Although some are picking the Gators as the team most likely to be this year’s Tennessee, the media likes them first in the East with Georgia close behind. The Volunteers were a distant third at that, garnering just five more votes than South Carolina. Whatever happens in the East, Auburn is the absolute favorite to dominate the West and win the championship game.
There were six Volunteers named to the pre-season media All-SEC team. Offensive lineman Arron Sears and defensive tackle Justin Harrell made the first team, running back Arian Foster, defensive back Jonathan Hefney, and kicker James Wilhoit made second team, and cornerback Jonathan Wade made the third team.
The national media is getting into the action as well. CBS Sportsline’s Dennis Dodd weighs in and says expect a little improvement, but not a lot, after last year’s Rocky Flop.
And the ESPN Insider Blue Ribbon preview of Tennessee is absolutely massive and includes bits of information I had not heard elsewhere, such as the fact that a new wide receiver drill involves catching bricks. That should teach you not to drop the ball and to catch with your hands. There’s also this more detailed description of Fulmer’s animated reaming of the team following Marvin Mitchell’s summer arrest:
Dealing with the law [for Mitchell] was easier than dealing with Fulmer, who had grown accustomed to the peace and tranquility afforded him by months of good behavior among his players. Fulmer went bonkers in a team meeting after Mitchell’s skirmish, screaming, throwing things and threatening to kick the next player who caused trouble off the team. True to his word, Fulmer ran off lineman Raymond Henderson a couple of days later after he made an inappropriate comment to a mother and her young daughter at a restaurant.
I guess he does have his stinger out.
John Adams’ Monday column — Sanders: Fall guy still is Vol guy — has generated a lot of discussion on Rocky Top over the last couple of days. The argument provoking excerpt:
Imagine how Sanders felt when he heard UT football coach Phillip Fulmer’s comments about last spring practice. Every time Fulmer praised new offensive coordinator, he buried his former offensive coordinator by implication.
“David has improved the toughness of our team,” Fulmer said in the spring. “We’re fundamentally better. He has been very demanding of tempo and execution.
“The daily practice habits improved. Not that we were practicing poorly, but not the cross-your-t’s-and-dot-your-i’s extent that we are now.”
It’s as though in his departure, Sanders was given power and responsibility he never realized he had as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
“I have heard (Fulmer’s comments),” Sanders said. “I’m not going to get into a debate or discussion over that. There were a few things I would have liked to have done differently that we weren’t necessarily allowed to do differently. For this to come out as such does bother me some.”
The talk has centered around whether Fulmer or Sanders is most to blame for the 2005 season. On the one hand, as the offensive coordinator, Sanders was responsible for the offensive woes. Fulmer had delegated this responsibility and Sanders had failed. On the other hand, word is that Fulmer may have delegated the responsibility for the offense to Sanders without actually giving him sufficient authority. In other words, Sanders could only do what Fulmer wanted him to do, and so the onus is on Fulmer.
Me? I think it’s probably a little bit of both and a little bit of neither. A lot of little things were allowed to slide by both Fulmer and Sanders, and by the time they realized the magnitude of the problem, the situation had veered out of control so far that no one could regain traction. Fulmer’s comments about recent practices being better in a multitude of ways has some to do with new OC Cutcliffe, but probably more to do with the attitude adjustment of everyone from the head coach to the water boy resulting from the horribly disappointing season.
What do y’all think?
The Tennessean relays a humorous exchange between UT coach Phillip Fulmer and Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson at the Comcast Sports Speaker Series:
Bobby Johnson acted confused.
The Vanderbilt football coach was just asked what life was going to be like without Jay Cutler, the former Commodore quarterback who was picked No. 11 overall in this year’s NFL Draft.
“He’s not coming back?” Johnson asked, feigning ignorance.
“You can’t afford him right now,” quipped Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer.
Then, as if on cue, the always quick-witted Johnson responded, “We’d have to use your budget.”
Before we turn the corner into the dark alley on the Re-living the Tennessee Volunteers 2005 Football Season Series (links to: Pre-season Expectations, Alabama-Birmingham, Florida Gators, and LSU and the Rally in the Valley), I thought it would be a good time to establish a little perspective, and Scout.com’s Randy Moore has published a great personal anecdote on UT coach Philip Fulmer that does just that. The story aptly illustrates what a class act Fulmer is, something we’d do well to keep in mind as we take the last critical look at the 2005 season. Here’s the gist:
Back before the 1992 season, Fulmer had been named acting head coach due to then-coach Johnny Majors’ five-bypass heart surgery. The newspaper for which Moore worked had abruptly gone out of business, and Moore found himself unemployed. Still, Moore went to Fulmer’s office to interview him 10 days before the home opener.
After the interview, Fulmer asked Moore how his job search was coming, and Moore told him that he’d had a lead that looked promising. Fulmer wished him luck. And here, I’ll let Moore tell it in his own words:
Ten days later, moments after rallying Tennessee from a sluggish start to a 38-3 drubbing of Southwest Louisiana, Fulmer strode into the interview area with a big grin on his face. Then he did something totally unexpected. Spotting me in a cluster of reporters, he stopped and asked, “Did you get that Maryville job?”
“No,” I answered. “The sports editor rescinded his resignation and got his job back.”
Fulmer frowned, patted me on the shoulder and said, “Hang in there. Things will work out.”
. . . . I’ll never forget that fateful evening nearly 14 years ago … when an up-and-coming coach celebrating his first victory took time to offer a few words of encouragement to a down-on-his-luck sports writer.
I think that speaks volumes about Fulmer’s character, and although media and fan criticism of the head coach of a national power is a fact of life, I hope we remember this upcoming season that whatever happens, coach Fulmer is a noble man. I also happen to think that he’s the right guy to get it turned around and that he will. I’m thinking it will be a bit like James Wilhoit’s missed extra point against Florida two years ago followed up just a few minutes later with the game-winning field goal, just on an extended time frame.
By the way, Randy Moore is one of my favorite Vol sports writers, and if you’re not reading him, you should be. Randy, thanks for keeping at it.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way. Backup backup backup quarterback Jim Bob Cooter embarassed the team this past weekend when he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence.
So how should he be punished? No more and no less than projected starting linebacker Marvin Mitchell, who was arrested for disorderly conduct a little more than a month ago. There is a perception that Coach Fulmer’s discipline is inversely proportionate to a player’s importance to the team.
But Fulmer seems to have a consistent and progressive discipline system — if you screw up once, you get a public tongue-lashing, a suspension, and some other “internal” discipline.” Multiple offenses result in increased punishment up to and including dismissal from the team. That’s why Mitchell was suspended and defensive tackle Raymond Henderson, who had received one or two warnings prior to making an inappropriate comment to an underage girl last month, was sent packing.
Fulmer needs to treat starters and non-starters similarly, and this equity should be applied in both directions. In other words, starters should get the same treatment as non-starters, and non-starters should get the same treatment as starters. So the best thing to do is to give Cooter the same treatment as Mitchell. If instead Fulmer puts his foot up Jim Bob’s rear end and sends him through the uprights, he’ll only reinforce the perception that at Tennessee, discipline is for pine-riders.