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2008 retrospective: Preseason

Fall practice for the Tennessee Volunteers doesn't begin until next Monday, so for this last week of "summer," RTT is going to put the Phillip Fulmer Era to bed. Will is going to reveal the top three games of the Fulmer Era today, Wednesday, and Friday, and I'm going to use the entire week take one last look at the cadaver of 2008 before we turn our eyes to 2009.

The review of the 2008 season will not be as comprehensive as either the analysis of the Season of Which We Do Not Speak or the review of the 2007 season. No, the 2008 nightmare is behind us and all that remains is to remove the duct tape the villain had stuck over our screaming mouths. It's a task best done quickly, not to minimize the pain -- because there's no getting around that -- but simply to get it over with as soon as possible.

Up today: The preseason, or Cutcliffe out, Clawfense in.

The 2007 high speed roller coaster ride filled with exhilarating highs and heart-sinking lows somehow had arrived at the station in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game against eventual national champion LSU. Many thought that Tennessee had backed into the SEC East title, but that didn't keep Duke from promptly hiring away offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe to be the Blue Devils' head coach. As it had once before, Cutcliffe's departure dramatically impacted the Tennessee program, and this time it was almost immediate. It started with the news that very highly touted quarterback prospect Terrelle Pryor had downgraded Tennessee from "close to No. 1" to "in the mix, but on the back burner." He eventually signed with Ohio State.

Meanwhile, Tennessee commenced its search for a new offensive coordinator, and fans began to speculate who that might be. We here at RTT made the case for promoting Trooper Taylor:

It’s by no means an easy choice. . . . It's entirely understandable that coach Fulmer would like to cast a wide net and find the absolute best person available to replace Cutcliffe, and he would surely appreciate having sufficient time to make a prudent decision. But almost immediately after the announcement concerning Cutcliffe, Taylor was offered the position of offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Baylor University. Most believe that Taylor will accept the Baylor position unless a better opportunity presents itself, like, oh, I don’t know, the position of Tennessee’s offensive coordinator.

Is he ready? Nobody can really know. There’s the nagging memory of the Peter Principle at work in the Randy Sanders Experiment. Just because someone has succeeded at every step of his professional career does not necessarily guarantee that he will succeed at the next.

But there’s also the once-bitten, twice-shy dilemma. Just because it didn’t work once, doesn’t necessarily mean you should never try it again.

Here’s what we do know, though. Taylor has succeeded at every task he’s been given at Tennessee. He has, in fact, left whatever he’s touched in better shape than it was when it was handed to him. That’s why I believe he’s worth a shot despite the risk.

. . . .

We all know that The Papa can recruit players. Here’s to hoping he can recruit coaches, too.

Trooper Taylor is a five-star/ten jar recruit, coach Fulmer. Time to close the deal and get him signed.

Unfortunately, Taylor quickly determined that he was not likely to get the promotion, and he decided to take a similar job at Oklahoma State. The speculation over who Tennessee would hire to replace Cutcliffe then ranged from Clemson OC Rob Spence to Kippy Brown to 49ers' QB coach Frank Cignetti to Michigan OC Mike DeBord to Greg Adkins, Doug Marrone, Gus Malzahn, or "some other college or NFL guy." As the search drug on, Trooper began to hint that he could still be wooed away from Oklahoma State.

But it was not to be. Instead, coach Phillip Fulmer hired Dave Clawson, who'd been named national Division I-AA coach of the year twice in eight seasons as head coach of the Richmond Spiders. Clawson was to bring an innovative new system and scheme to Rocky Top, and Vol fans who'd grown tired of being able to predict the majority of Tennessee's plays were looking forward to it so much we gave it a fearsome nickname: the Clawfense.

We really should have known that something was wrong by August, when quotes from the players indicated a steep learning curve for Clawson's scheme:

Photo by fdecomite

Now that practice has started and the media is permitted to ask questions of players instead of tight-lipped coaches, hints of what the Clawfense will look like are beginning to emerge. As I guessed as an EDSBS Visiting Lecturer, it is apparently a spready-type, West Coast-ish (emphasis on the "-ish") thing. It's also apparently quite complex. Josh McNeil calls it "really complicated," Brandon Warren says "he's never seen anything like [it]," and Gerald Jones thinks it's "a whole lot harder than Cutcliffe's offense." How much of the complexity has to do with The Incredible Flipping O-Line, we don't yet know, but I suspect that that's only a small part of it.

Frankly, I have mixed feelings about the fact that it appears to be so complex. If it's over the players' heads, it could be disastrous, like playing chess with checkers. Even if it's merely difficult for the players to grasp, there could be a steep and long learning curve, which could signal serious trouble considering our early, front-loaded schedule. However, the coaches must be trusted to give the players only what they can handle, and I think our current players are smart enough to handle most everything thrown at them and to catch on quickly and in time for the season.

Assuming the Clawfense is complex without being overwhelming . . . .

. . . and let's just stop there because that's precisely where things went wrong.