11 Tennessee

With no veteran passer to bail out the offense, the pressure is on the running game to carry the Vols
August 15, 2004

When Cedric Houston lines up at tailback this fall, the 6-foot, 215-pound senior will be looking to finish his career the way he started his junior season. In Tennessee’s first two games last year Houston ran for 321 yards on 45 carries, showcasing the bruising style that had made him one of the country’s top high school backs in 2001. His breakout season, however, was waylaid by nagging hip and ankle injuries and the Volunteers’ increasing reliance on quarterback Casey Clausen to move the offense. Over the last 11 games, of which he played in all or part of 10, Houston produced only 423 yards on 104 carries. “I thought the rest of the year was going to be like the first two games,” he says. “Then we started throwing a lot more.”

Clausen, a four-year starter who finished as the second most prolific passer in school history, behind Peyton Manning, led Tennessee to a 10–3 record. However, the lapses in the running game, plus the need to go to the pass early in some games and more frequently, upset the balance of coach Phillip Fulmer’s multiple offense. The Vols had a 100-yard rusher in only three games, and for the second straight season Houston was the team’s leading ball carrier with less than 800 yards. After the season Fulmer brought in a new running backs coach, Trooper Taylor from Tulane. “Coming in, all I heard was that the backs were a disappointment,” says Taylor, whose tutoring tools include videotape of former Tennessee standout backs such as Travis Henry and Jamal Lewis. “Cedric’s going to do so much better this year. He likes to be challenged.”

That’s good news for the Volunteers, who will be breaking in a new quarterback. (Fifth-year senior C.J. Leak has the edge over junior Rick Clausen, Casey’s brother.) “There’s no doubt we’ll have to rely on the running game more,” says offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. “With injuries and the tough defenses we faced last year, I think Cedric never got back in the groove. At the midpoint of the season he was getting tackled way too many times by one man.”

The prospect of carrying the offense this year has Houston fired up. He needs 1,450 yards to surpass Henry as the school’s alltime leading rusher, and with 6'6", 315-pound senior tackle Michael Muñoz leading an experienced offensive line, the mark isn’t beyond his reach. “The only way to simplify the offense is to run,” he says. “I don’t mind carrying 30 to 35 times a game. The way I look at it, it’s in my hands this year.” --M.B.

FAST FACTS

2003 RECORD 10–3 (6–2, T1 in SEC East)

FINAL AP RANK 15

RETURNING STARTERS 9

KEY RETURNEES (2003 stats)

T Michael Muñoz (Sr.)

Hall of Famer’s son has started 37 games

RB Cedric Houston (Sr.)

Vols’ leading rusher the last two seasons

LB Kevin Simon (Jr.)

115 tackles, tops on the team; 4 1‚ÅÑ2 sacks

LB Kevin Burnett (Sr.)

Team captain, two-time academic All-SEC

P Dustin Colquitt (Sr.)

Consensus All-America led SEC with 45.3 avg.

TELLING NUMBER

12

Bowls in Phillip Fulmer’s first 12 seasons as Vols coach. Only Tom Osborne (25 at Nebraska) had a longer run starting in his first year.

BREAKOUT PLAYER

A torn knee ligament sidelined Robert Meachem last season, and a pulled hamstring kept him out of the first half of spring practice. But the 6'3", 210-pound playmaker could be the most talented of the Vols’ receivers, and everybody in Knoxville is excited to see what the redshirt freshman can do once he gets the ball in his hands.

SCHEDULE

Sept. 5 UNLV

18 FLORIDA

25 LOUISIANA TECH

Oct. 2 AUBURN

9 at Georgia

16 at Mississippi

23 ALABAMA

30 at South Carolina

Nov. 6 NOTRE DAME

20 at Vanderbilt

27 KENTUCKY

COLOR PHOTOED REINKE/AP RUSH ORDERTennessee needs Houston to stay healthy and productive to survive the grind of the SEC.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)