Fulmer, Vols eager to build on success
By: By Beth Rucker, Associated Press Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tennessee Volunteers’ head coach Phillip Fulmer has his work cut out for him this offseason.
Only minutes after wrapping up the topsy-turvy 2007 season with 10 wins and a 21-17 Outback Bowl win over No. 18 Wisconsin, Fulmer announced he was ready to get back to work.
“We’re ready to go home and put a little bit of a staff together where we need to,” Fulmer said.
After the up-and-down season the Vols have seen — with tough losses and injuries coupled with exhilarating wins and a Southeastern Conference championship appearance — it would be easy for the coach to take some time off.
But Fulmer said he’s ready to build on the No. 16 Volunteers’ winning season.
The first thing on the agenda is to fill coaching vacancies created by offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe’s departure to become Duke coach and wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor’s exit for a co-offensive coordinator position at Oklahoma State.
Fulmer may have a few other spots to fill too. Running backs coach Kurt Roper and tight ends coach Matt Luke are expected to follow Cutcliffe to Duke.
Fulmer said he has already interviewed several candidates for the offensive coordinator job, which he wants to fill first. He even interviewed in Tampa preparing for the Outback Bowl.
The Vols are also waiting on four juniors to decide if they will enter the NFL draft in the spring.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo is a likely candidate to leave after leading the SEC with 140 tackles. All-American offensive guard Anthony Parker and tailback Arian Foster may also enter the draft.
Britton Colquitt was also waiting to see where he could go in the draft before deciding, though the punter has said he was disappointed with his numbers this season and likely would stay.
Mayo and quarterback Erik Ainge, who played all season with a broken pinkie and hurt shoulder, helped keep their teammates on track after the Vols’ first 1-2 since 1994.
The rushing game was inconsistent all year, and tailback LaMarcus Coker was dismissed from the team after repeated team rule violations, but Foster managed to quietly pile up 1,193 yards rushing.
Tennessee’s defense couldn’t stop California’s Justin Forsett and DeSean Jackson from running all over the Vols or Nate Longshore from passing at will in the Golden Bears’ 45-31 win.
Ainge played with a broken pinkie, and Fulmer later revealed the quarterback suffered a shoulder injury that would haunt him all season during the game. The defense missed at least 22 tackles and allowed Jackson to return a punt 77 yards for a touchdown.
After cruising to a 39-13 win over Southern Mississippi, Tennessee again was humiliated, this time beat 59-20 by SEC foe Florida.
The Vols heard the criticism of their coach and responded by beating Arkansas State 48-27, Georgia 37-20 and Mississippi State 33-21 in consecutive wins.
Tennessee shut down Georgia’s dangerous tailbacks, Thomas Brown and Knowshon Moreno, while putting on a strong rushing performance for the first time that season.
Fulmer lashed back at his critics after the game, including calling a column in The Knoxville News Sentinel that questioned the team’s attitude and direction a “cheap shot.”
But after the three-game success, Tennessee again faltered in an embarrassing 41-17 loss to Alabama that appeared to put the Vols out of the SEC championship picture.
Crimson Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson and receiver D.J. Hall both posted career games against the Vols, who struggled on both sides of the ball; and Fulmer’s critics got louder.
Fulmer shifted the team’s regular Monday practice to Sunday night after the ’Bama loss in an effort to put that game and the first half of the season behind them. He challenged his players to win their remaining five games.
And win they did.
Daniel Lincoln kicked a game-tying 48-yard field goal with five seconds left against South Carolina and then scored the only points in overtime with another field goal as the Vols beat the Gamecocks 27-24.
Tennessee earned its most lopsided victory in seven years in a 59-7 homecoming win over Louisiana-Lafayette, though it did so in front of the smallest home crowd in more than a decade.
The fans returned the next week to see the Vols limit the SEC’s top rusher, Darren McFadden to 117 yards, in a 34-13 win over Arkansas.
Tennessee needed 15 fourth-quarter points and some luck to beat Vanderbilt 25-24. Commodore kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt barely missed a potential game-winning 49-yard field goal with 33 seconds left.
The Vols’ season finale against Kentucky was even more heart-stopping after they blew a 17-point lead and needed four overtime periods to beat the Wildcats 52-50.
Ainge threw for a career-high 397 yards, and Antonio Reynolds stuffed Andre Woodson’s two-point conversion attempt in the fourth overtime to end the game.
Tennessee tied Georgia as SEC East champion. The Vols won the tiebreaker because of their earlier win over the Bulldogs.
But Tennessee couldn’t find the same magic in Atlanta against LSU. Ainge threw two interceptions that sealed the Tigers’ 21-14 win.
The Vols received a repeat bid to play in the Outback Bowl, where they lost to Penn State a year ago.
This time Tennessee prevailed thanks to Ainge’s 365 yards passing and a strong second-half performance by the Vols’ defense.
“Winning and losing games — if anybody says that’s not everything, they’re lying,” Ainge said. “Winning the game puts that good face on it now for the next few months.”