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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs top high school backs in 2001. His breakout season, however, was waylaid by nagging hip and ankle injuries and the Volunteers‚Äô 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. ‚ÄúI thought the rest of the year was going to be like the first two games,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúThen we started throwing a lot more.‚Äù
Clausen, a four-year starter who finished as the second most prolific passer in school history, behind Peyton Manning, led Tennessee to a 10‚Äì3 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‚Äôs multiple offense. The Vols had a 100-yard rusher in only three games, and for the second straight season Houston was the team‚Äôs leading ball carrier with less than 800 yards. After the season Fulmer brought in a new running backs coach, Trooper Taylor from Tulane. ‚ÄúComing in, all I heard was that the backs were a disappointment,‚Äù says Taylor, whose tutoring tools include videotape of former Tennessee standout backs such as Travis Henry and Jamal Lewis. ‚ÄúCedric‚Äôs going to do so much better this year. He likes to be challenged.‚Äù
That‚Äôs 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‚Äôs brother.) ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs no doubt we‚Äôll have to rely on the running game more,‚Äù says offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. ‚ÄúWith 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.‚Äù
The prospect of carrying the offense this year has Houston fired up. He needs 1,450 yards to surpass Henry as the school‚Äôs alltime leading rusher, and with 6'6", 315-pound senior tackle Michael Mu√±oz leading an experienced offensive line, the mark isn‚Äôt beyond his reach. ‚ÄúThe only way to simplify the offense is to run,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt mind carrying 30 to 35 times a game. The way I look at it, it‚Äôs in my hands this year.‚Äù --M.B.
2003 RECORD 10‚Äì3 (6‚Äì2, T1 in SEC East)
FINAL AP RANK 15
RETURNING STARTERS 9
KEY RETURNEES (2003 stats)
T Michael Mu√±oz (Sr.)
Hall of Famer‚Äôs son has started 37 games
RB Cedric Houston (Sr.)
Vols‚Äô 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.
Bowls in Phillip Fulmer‚Äôs first 12 seasons as Vols coach. Only Tom Osborne (25 at Nebraska) had a longer run starting in his first year.
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‚Äô receivers, and everybody in Knoxville is excited to see what the redshirt freshman can do once he gets the ball in his hands.
Sept. 5 UNLV
25 LOUISIANA TECH
Oct. 2 AUBURN
9 at Georgia
16 at Mississippi
30 at South Carolina
Nov. 6 NOTRE DAME
20 at Vanderbilt
Tennessee needs Houston to stay healthy and productive to survive the grind of the SEC.