- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Rarely has a set of big uglies looked so good.

When No. 10 Tennessee plays host to No.8 Auburn tonight in college football’s marquee weekend matchup, most fans will focus on high-profile players like Auburn Heisman hopeful tailback Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and Tennessee freshman quarterback phenom Erik Ainge. But Tennessee’s outstanding offensive line is likely to anonymously decide the game.

There’s a reason the 6-foot-6, 215-pound Ainge looks more like a fifth-year senior than a 17-year-old kid five months removed from a bright blue prom tux. Yeah, Danny’s nephew is an outrageously talented player whose accurate arm, quick feet and outstanding size have combined to make him the SEC’s top-rated passer. And sure, he’s completed 36 of his 56 passes for 508 yards and eight touchdowns while throwing only one interception for the undefeated Vols (3-0).

But he also has hardly been touched in three games.

“When you have an offensive line that’s playing like ours, throwing the ball has almost been like a seven-on-seven tournament,” said Ainge, who has been sacked just twice in 60 drops. “I’ve had a lot of time to throw the ball, and the running backs have been able to do their thing.”

The running backs alone in this showdown could soak up enough ink to turn Neyland Stadium into a squid aquarium. Auburn’s tailback tandem of Williams and Ronnie Brown is considered the nation’s best, and for good reason. The two have led the Tigers to a 4-0 start that includes a victory over defending national champion LSU.

But if Auburn’s pair is more hyped, it’s Tennessee’s ground game that leads the SEC in rushing (263.3 yards a game). Though upperclassmen Cedric Houston (103.3) and Gerald Riggs Jr. (86.0) are powerful runners, the bulk of the credit belongs once again to Tennessee’s beastie boys in the trenches.

“Honestly, I think the ballboy would look good running behind our line,” said Vols offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. “They’re pretty special.”

This time last year, nobody was pitching praise at Tennessee’s O-line. Left tackle Michael Munoz (yeah, that Munoz) and right guard Cody Douglas were playing hurt. Center Jason Respert was emotionally MIA because of the hospitalization and near death of his roommate and best friend Chuck Prugh, a backup center who spent two months in a coma with meningitis. Right tackle Arron Sears and left guard Rob Smith were prep Parade All-Americans but still freshman pups. And primary backup Albert Toeaina and fullback Cory Anderson weren’t on the Vols’ roster.

“We were an underachieving group last year, no doubt,” said Douglas, the unit’s designated spokesman. “I think the Auburn game typified that. We rushed for 14 yards on nine carries in the [28-21] loss down there. That’s worse than pathetic. That’s just not Tennessee football. This year we’re playing Tennessee football.”

Tennessee football is 101 rushing yards in the first quarter of the team’s 30-28 victory over Florida two weeks ago. When the Gators were forced to creep an eighth and ninth player toward the line, Ainge — rarely pressured, of course — picked apart Florida’s secondary.

Tennessee football is three offensive line penalties (two false starts and one hold) in the team’s first three games.

Tennessee football is 18 plays of 20 yards or more in the season’s first three games, as its tailbacks have routinely reached fifth gear and the second level of the defense before being touched, while Ainge and co-starter Brent Schaeffer have had plenty of time in the pocket to peruse downfield options.

Tennessee football is four Parade All-Americans plus Douglas finally performing to the level of their ability.

Douglas, a 325-pounder from La Marque, Texas, is the motivator. He plays each day with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Lone Star State after being spurned by in-state powers Texas and Texas A&M.;

Munoz is the technician. Would you expect anything less than flawless fundamentals from the son of arguably the greatest lineman in NFL history?

Respert is coach Phil Fulmer’s born-again Christian soldier. Some time last season when he was pondering Prugh’s fate and his own personal unhappiness, Respert found faith. The 305-pounder is now one of the team’s emotional rocks. Like Munoz, he’s also been recognized once already this season as SEC Lineman of the Week. And like Munoz, who is on both the Lombardi and Outland trophy watch lists, Respert is a likely All-American and the favorite to win the Rimington Trophy given annually to the nation’s top center.

Sears is the precociously talented youngster. Recruiting analyst Tom Lemming rated the 315-pounder from Russellville, Ala., as the top lineman among last year’s arriving freshmen. So nobody in Knoxville was surprised when Sears cracked the starting rotation last season and this year quickly gained a reputation as the SEC’s best drive-blocker.

Then there’s Smith, the player Fulmer nicknamed “Nasty” the moment he arrived on campus. Smith, a 308-pound redshirt sophomore from Fort Thomas, Ky., is the son of a general contractor who yanked him out of two youth games and a middle-school game because he wasn’t exhibiting the proper intensity. Suffice it to say, Mr. Smith of Fort Thomas eventually managed to construct a foul-intentioned football player.

And that doesn’t even take into account Toeaina or Anderson. Toeaina is a 6-6, 360-pound JUCO goliath who was slated to start at right tackle before injuring his tibia in the final summer scrimmage. The massive Samoan, the most prized JUCO recruit in the nation last year, returns at 100 percent tonight.

Anderson is a converted defensive end who relished contact so much he was too busy engaging offensive tackles to rush the quarterback. Fulmer suggested trying the 270-pounder at fullback, and he has found a contact-happy home. In three games, Anderson has yet to touch the football as a rusher. But he has touched plenty of linebackers.

So tonight when Houston is end zone kneeling or Ainge is trotting downfield, finger held high after a big-play connection, spare a thought for the faceless Big Orange bulldozers. Because if the Vols beat the Tigers, Tennessee’s superb offensive line is likely to be largely responsible for the victory.

“We’ve had this game marked on the calendar ever since they humiliated us last year,” Douglas said. “We definitely have something to prove. It’s time to crack some face masks.”

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