KNOXVILLE, Tenn. –Phillip Fulmer says it feels like David Cutcliffe never left. Tennessee's players know it's not quite the same with the Volunteers' offensive coordinator back in town.
After Tennessee missed the postseason for the first time in 13 seasons, Fulmer brought Cutcliffe back to rebuild the foundation of the Volunteers offense.
When the Volunteers ended spring with the Orange and White game Saturday, they finished spring drills working harder than they had in years.
Falling from No. 3 in the preseason poll to a 5-6 record can have that effect.
"The No. 1 thing Coach Cutcliffe brings to this offense is a sense of urgency and knowing how to practice and what it means to sweat," junior quarterback Erik Ainge said. "It was eye-opening in that I thought I was working (before), but Coach Cut brings a whole 'nother level to working hard and sweating."
After the Volunteers' offense finished 102nd in the country with 18.6 points per game, Fulmer turned to Cutcliffe, 51, whose tenure as Notre Dame's quarterbacks coach was cut short after triple bypass surgery.
The return reunites Fulmer, Cutcliffe and defensive coordinator John Chavis. The trio led Tennessee to its most successful period under Fulmer. From 1995-98, the Volunteers went 45-5 with a national title in 1998. Cutcliffe left the following year to be head coach at Ole Miss.
In his return to Knoxville, Cutcliffe aimed to change the culture of the team.
While the offense and defense were both limited in Saturday's spring game, Cutcliffe said he watched for the little things, such as receivers blocking downfield and looking the ball into their hands.
"The magic is not in the plays, schemes or even the guy calling the plays," Fulmer said. "The magic is in the effort and the execution. That's where we've made some strides."
The biggest impact has been on Ainge.
An Inside Look
Old reliable: Senior cornerback Jonathan Wade was
one of the two most improved defensive players of the spring after starting 15 games the last two seasons. He
added an interception in the Orange and White game.
Promising newcomer: Linebacker Rico McCoy would
have played last season as a true freshman, but he missed the year because of foot surgery. He capped an
impressive spring with six solo tackles in the spring game.
Unit that needs work: Offensive line. Arron
Sears and David Ligon are the only two assured of a starting spot. Sears could play left tackle
but could shift to guard depending on matchups. Ligon started four games at center but played at guard in the
Fast forward:David Cutcliffe will have a clearer
picture of the offense once the running backs are healthy. The Volunteers will have to sort out the front seven
and offensive line during the fall.
He claimed the starting job soundly during the spring after competing with Rick Clausen and Brent Schaeffer the last two seasons.
As a sophomore, he completed only 45.5 percent of his passes and threw five touchdowns to seven interceptions in five starts.
In the spring game Saturday, he quarterbacked the White team, which won 34-7. Ainge was 14 of 22 for 210 yards with two touchdown passes, both to Robert Meachem.
It wasn't all perfect for Ainge on Saturday. He missed Meachem in the end zone and took two sacks when he could have thrown the ball out of bounds.
"Confidence is something you earn and he's starting to earn that because he knows what he's doing," Cutcliffe said. "He's comfortable in what he's doing. That will make the difference."
Relieved of the pressure of winning the starting job, Ainge said he is more comfortable on the field and in taking a leadership role.
"If I need to say something, I can say what needs to be said," Ainge said. "Last year, it was difficult with Rick and I both trying to say stuff. You can't really do that. Now, I think I have the respect from the team and the coaching staff."
Backup quarterbacks Jonathan Crompton and Bo Hardegree combined to complete 82.6 percent of their passes for the Orange team but led it to only one scoring drive.
Even with the quarterback situation settled, the Volunteers still have work ahead of them for the fall.
Three running backs will return from injuries that kept them out for the spring, and the offensive line remains unsettled.
The foundation, though, has been set, coaches said.
"They've really started to understand that every little detail counts," Cutcliffe said. "We haven't 100 percent got that through, but we're starting to."
Front seven progressing
Tennessee lost six starters in the front seven, but try telling linebacker Rico McCoy that will be a weakness in the fall.
"The sky's the limit," McCoy said. "The front seven, especially the D-linemen, have something to prove. It's their time to shine. They're hungry. They want the starting jobs and they're ready to be seen."
McCoy, a redshirt freshman who missed all of last season with a foot injury, is part of the reason for optimism. He was one of three linebackers to lead both teams in tackles with seven apiece. Even without linebackers blitzing behind them, the linemen combined for six sacks and three fumble recoveries.
"We lost six guys, but we still have some guys that have played," said Marvin Mitchell, a senior on top of the depth chart at middle linebacker. "It's all about effort. A lot of young guys don't have too much technique, but you can always build on teaching young guys to get better."
Offense opens up
The offense was scaled back for the spring game, but that didn't mean there weren't any wrinkles.
Cornerback Demetrice Morley lined up at wide receiver on the first possession directed by quarterback Bo Hardegree in the second quarter. Morley caught one pass for 5 yards.
On the next play, Hardegree switched places with wide receiver Lucas Taylor, who ran a quarterback draw for 4 yards. One play later Hardegree threw the deepest pass of the game, but it was intercepted by cornerback Jonathan Wade.
Morley's brief appearance on offense might not be his last. Fulmer said it is a possibility Morley, Wade and safety Jonathan Hefney could take snaps on the other side of the ball.
Making the Grade
Quarterback: 6.5 Erik Ainge claimed the starting position during the spring and ended on a high note, going 14 of 22 for
210 yards and two touchdowns during the spring game. Backups Jonathan Crompton and Bo
Hardegree combined for only one scoring drive and an interception.
Running back: 5.5
More like incomplete. The Volunteers' starting running back, Arian Foster, missed most of the spring
with a shoulder injury. Backups Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker also missed time during
the spring. In their absence, senior David Yancey and sophomore Ja'Kouri Williams combined for
20 carries for 81 yards.
Wide receiver: 6.5 Robert Meachem's 70-yard touchdown catch was 17 yards longer than last year's longest pass play. More
days like this from Meachem will help revive the SEC's ninth-ranked pass offense. Bret Smith capped a
good spring with seven catches for 47 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
Tight end: 6.0
They're not going to remind anyone of Jason Witten, but tight ends were an option in the passing game. Brad
Cottam, Chris Brown and Rick Daniels-Mulholland combined for 10 receptions for 66 yards
Offensive line: 6.0
The Volunteers ended spring with only Arron Sears and David Ligon assured of a starting spot.
Fulmer toyed with the idea of moving Sears from left tackle to guard depending who the opponent has on the
inside. The defense was credited with six sacks in the spring game even though the rest of the defense was held
back from blitzing.
Defensive line: 7.0
Tackle Justin Harrell is the only returning starter in the front seven. The other projected starter at
tackle, Turk McBride, was held out of Saturday's game. Ends Robert Ayers and Antonio
Reynolds and tackles Demonte Bolden, Matt McGlothlin and Dan Williams showed the
Volunteers they have options at the position.
The group still needs some seasoning, but the effort is there, said senior Marvin Mitchell, who ended
spring as the top middle linebacker. The replacements for Omar Gaither, Kevin Simon and Jason Mitchell were
productive in the spring game. Rico McCoy bounced back from a foot injury, but another promising
outside linebacker, Jerod Mayo, missed time because of injury.
Defensive back: 8.0
With its experience, the secondary is the strength of the defense. Senior cornerback Jonathan Wade had
an interception in the spring game. The question is how Fulmer will get sophomore Demetrice Morley on
the field with Jonathan Hefney and Antwan Stewart blocking him at safety.
Special teams: 8.0 Britton Colquitt averaged 49.3 yards per punt. The shortest of the day, at 37 yards, went out of bounds
at the 8-yard line. James Wilhoit converted both of his field goal attempts, from 35 and 36 yards.
For more coverage of Tennessee Spring practice, check out VolQuest.com.