Execution woes haunting Fulmer
Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 5:45 pm
By: By BETH RUCKER, Associated Press Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer can’t think of a time in his career when he’s had so much trouble with players struggling to execute.
That’s the main reason, Fulmer says, the Vols have been so woeful on offense through much of the season.
“It’s execution by different players at different times. It’s the inconsistency of the run game and it’s the youth at quarterback. In the SEC it’s just a few plays and a few players that make a difference,” he said.
The trouble is figuring out what’s behind the execution problems before Tennessee (3-5, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) faces South Carolina (5-3, 2-3) on Saturday night.
Vols coaches have denied that their players are having problems in practice or with preparation or effort or any of the areas that might explain a lack of sound execution.
Fulmer has made some changes this season that he thought would solve Tennessee’s problems.
He switched quarterbacks. He made practices more physical. He even tried to play Tennessee’s star safety, Eric Berry, as a special teams returner and wide receiver. Those changes don’t appear to have helped enough.
Quarterback Nick Stephens is making far fewer mistakes than Jonathan Crompton did before he was benched, but the sophomore and his receiving corps weren’t able to make enough plays to keep Tennessee competitive in losses to Georgia and Alabama or to make up for a struggling run game.
Stephens said he couldn’t quite identify where the execution problems came from either.
“We can all do things better, that’s what it comes down to. The (offensive) line, me — I can do a lot of things better — the receivers. We’ve just got to take care of our business,” he said.
After its first week of physical practices, the offensive line got a better push against Mississippi State two weeks ago, allowing for a solid day of rushing. The problems returned in the 29-9 loss to the Crimson Tide on Saturday night, and the Vols gained only 36 yards on the ground.
Berry averaged 16 yards on two kickoff returns against Alabama, but didn’t have the breakaway play Fulmer was looking for. His only catch at wide receiver was worth three yards.
Tennessee has been penalized for an average 57.5 yards per game this season, making the Vols the third-most-punished SEC team. Holding, offsides, illegal motion and pass interference calls — on both offense and defense — are making things harder in an already difficult situation for the Vols.
“I haven’t quite had this kind of issue that I can recall in my career as a head coach. We’ve had difficulties from time to time but none that have continued like this, particularly the penalty thing. That’s really a concern,” Fulmer said.
The 17-year coach insists that Tennessee’s execution problems aren’t related to the new offensive schemes installed by first-year coordinator Dave Clawson. All the kinks were worked out during the offseason, he said.
And Tennessee’s opponents aren’t giving the Vols any unexpected looks, either.
“After watching film, it really wasn’t anything Alabama did to mess up our running game,” offensive lineman Vladimir Richard said. “Whether it was penalties, mistakes or missed assignments, it was basically just us.”
One problem Fulmer isn’t having is keeping his players focused on improvement. That could be a tough sell for many coaches when championships and top bowl games are out of the picture.
There haven’t been any off-the-field incidents during the season that seem to have troubled Tennessee teams in recent years. Fulmer said players are showing up for their classes and giving plenty of effort during practice.
Stephens listed a number of reasons that his teammates haven’t given up: sending the seniors off on a positive note, earning a bowl bid and setting the tone for next season.
But what was his top reason?
“Pride. We are Tennessee still. We’re proud of that,” he said.