Commentary

Clawson, Volunteers planning to beef up running game

Updated: April 25, 2008, 4:01 PM ET
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The alleged inbreeding in Tennessee's football program goes back a ways.

Some would say all the way back to Gen. Robert Neyland. After all, those aren't just anybody's maxims the Vols recite before every game.

And on offense, at least for the past two decades, promoting from within has been the standard.

From the time Phillip Fulmer ascended from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator in 1989, the guy calling the plays for the Vols has invariably come from inside the family.

Until now.

[+] EnlargeDave Clawson
AP Photo/Wade PayneDave Clawson brings a fresh approach to the Vols.

Meet Dave Clawson, who on first glimpse looks like he might be more comfortable discussing tax planning and mutual funds than pass routes and blocking schemes.

The former Richmond head coach, whose cerebral demeanor and professorial approach has been a hit in Knoxville, is the centerpiece of what has been the most comprehensive offensive makeover of the Fulmer era. The Vols head into the 2008 season with a new coordinator, three other new offensive assistants, a new scheme, new terminology and a new quarterback.

Senior offensive guard Anthony Parker is even sporting a new look. He had his head shaved, dreadlocks and all, on the field right after the Vols' Orange and White spring game on April 19.

"There are a lot of similarities to what we've done in the past in terms of being demanding and doing what you've got to do to be successful, but the style of this offense is different than anything I've been around here at Tennessee," said senior running back Arian Foster, who is on his third different offensive coordinator.

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One of the criticisms of Fulmer, at least offensively, is that he's been hesitant to go outside the family. Previous coordinators David Cutcliffe and Randy Sanders were both promoted from within, and Cutcliffe just finished serving his second stint at Tennessee prior to landing the Duke head coaching job in December.

But with Cutcliffe taking a couple of assistants with him to Duke and receivers coach Trooper Taylor bolting for Oklahoma State, Fulmer had to replace almost his entire offensive staff. He talked to pro coaches, college coaches, even some high school coaches.

He made a couple of runs at Clemson offensive coordinator Rob Spence, who elected to stay put, and would have liked to have lured former Tennessee assistant Kippy Brown back from the NFL.

Ultimately, Fulmer settled on Clawson, who had interviewed the year before for the Boston College head coaching job. BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo was a graduate assistant at Tennessee in the early 1970s when Fulmer was getting his coaching start, and the two have continued to talk over the years.

DeFilippo's endorsement of Clawson carried a lot of weight with Fulmer, who was even more intrigued after he met and talked football with Clawson. A dandy playcaller himself when he performed those duties under John Majors from 1989-92, Fulmer liked the idea of bringing some new blood into the program. And that's not a knock against Cutcliffe, either.

[+] EnlargeArian Foster
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesArian Foster ran for 1,193 yards in 2007.

The Vols averaged 32.5 points last season on their way to an SEC Championship Game appearance and were one of only two teams in the league, along with Kentucky, to have a 3,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver.

Clawson has been careful this spring to point out that the offense wasn't broken when he arrived at Tennessee. But he's been equally diligent about implementing a system that he believes in -- and one Fulmer believes in.

"Coach Fulmer's the head coach, and we're going to do things that he wants to do," Clawson said. "I think one of the reasons I got the job is that a lot of the things I believe in offensively are what he believes in offensively. There can be lots of good ideas, and maybe they're great ideas. But if they don't agree with what the head coach wants, then that person is probably not getting the job.

"We've had some great conversations. It's fun to be the assistant again and have the head coach ask those philosophical questions, because it really forces you to think through them."

One of Fulmer's mandates to Clawson -- and one that's been a hallmark of Clawson's career -- is beefing up the running game and finding a way to make it more consistent. The Vols were ninth in the SEC in rushing offense last season, 10th in 2006 and ninth in 2005. They've finished in the top half of the league in rushing offense only once (2004) in the past six seasons.

Even though Jonathan Crompton solidified himself as the starting quarterback this spring and closed with a strong showing in the spring game, Clawson will be careful not to dump too much on the fourth-year junior's shoulders.

The Vols return all five offensive line starters from the final six games last season, their most promising array of playmakers at receiver in some time and a 1,000-yard rusher in Foster, who's closing in on Tennessee's all-time rushing record.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Crompton
AP Photo/Wade PayneJonathan Crompton's strong spring solidified his role as the Vols' starting QB.

"I like this offense because we can pretty much run every play out of a different formation," said Crompton, who will be sidelined for the next month after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his throwing elbow. "It keeps the defense on its toes, and we know who's doing what and how we're going to run it depending on the coverages."

The passing game under Clawson will feature more West Coast offense principles, such as quick tosses to the backs and more throws to the tight ends.

He also wants to use the traditional I-formation fullback more, which essentially disappeared from the Vols' offense the past few years.

Another Clawson staple is flipping the linemen and utilizing a strong side and quick side, something the Vols previously haven't done under Fulmer. Essentially, guard Jacques McClendon and tackle Ramon Foster will line up on the same side as the tight end. It's a setup that is pretty rare in today's college football.

The other thing to look for is the receivers being moved around quite a bit, in particular sophomore Gerald Jones. He has lined up outside, in the slot and even at quarterback in the Vols' "G-Gun package."

Jones, who showed flashes of brilliance last season as a true freshman, will be a key component in what Clawson wants to do with the passing game.

"As much as he's a good athlete and as explosive as he is, part of playing football at this level is that you have to learn the position, learn the techniques of the position, the subtleties," Clawson said. "I think that's where Gerald has made his biggest strides this spring. We're able to move him into different positions now."

Fulmer said that all the changes, including the whole hiring process, has been refreshing for him. He doesn't agree with the perception among some fans that Tennessee's offensive system had become stale and antiquated.

But he also doesn't disagree that new blood, new ideas and a new approach can help provide another dimension for Tennessee offensively.

[+] EnlargeGerald Jones
J. Meric/Getty ImagesGerald Jones averaged 10.1 yards per catch in '07.

"At some point or another, we've done just about everything with our offense," Fulmer said. "Now, we go to something a little bit different with Dave. He's very bright and very meticulous and has had very good success with this style. The players all caught on quite well during the spring, and I'm anxious to see the progress as we get into the fall."

So are the Tennessee fans, many of whom have been thirsting for something new from the Vols for the better part of the past decade. That tends to happen, though, when you're coming up on 10 years without an SEC championship at a place like Tennessee.

And while this will be Clawson's maiden voyage through the SEC, he's well aware of how he'll be judged and against whom he'll be judged.

Check back on Sept. 20, Sept. 27, Oct. 11 and Oct. 25 when the Vols play Florida, Auburn, Georgia and Alabama, respectively.

"I haven't lost a game, haven't gone three-and-out and haven't been stopped on a key drive," Clawson joked.

But he is an unknown when it comes to the rival defensive coordinators in the league, although Clawson himself thinks that is overrated in this age of information overload.

"I've called plays for 15 years. They can always find tape," Clawson said. "It's always an advantage to have continuity in a system. But I also think probably, at least initially, that the tendencies I have may not become as apparent to people as if I'd been here for five years."

Just don't ask him to sing "Rocky Top." Not yet, anyway.

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to him at espnclow@aol.com.

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