April 9, 2009

Next level: UT centers dig deeper in film

Since arriving on campus four years ago as a walk-on from Cottontown's White House High School, University of Tennessee center Cody Sullins, with little notoriety, carries himself as an ardent student -- both of the game of football and in the classroom.

Sullins and his twin brother, Cory, boast a combined six Academic All-SEC selections between them. They are as automatic on the honor roll as frustrated curses at Augusta's "Amen Corner."

But Cody Sullins finds himself spending more time in the film room studying defenses than ever before. Learning the new offense of first-year UT coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, Sullins says he and fellow senior Josh McNeil are burning the crystals inside the Vols' high-definition LCD televisions.

"You have to (watch more film), there's no other way to learn it," says Sullins, who after earning a scholarship a year ago now finds himself firmly in the Vols' two-deep. "You can look at the playbook, but with the playbook you've just got the people down there on the page. You've got to get in the film room and see how the defenses are actually moving and stuff."

Picking up nuances of a defense is important for any offensive linemen; doing so in Chaney's system -- the Vols' third offensive set in as many years -- is paramount to success. Chaney and Kiffin place increased responsibilities on the shoulders of their centers.

"Well, they've got to play really fast, and the more you know, the faster you play," Kiffin explains. "So we've put a lot on them, they do a lot of stuff up front. Change a lot of stuff up front. They've got to study more than probably everybody but our quarterback."

Their studies are brand-new from anything asked by their predecessors, according to McNeil.

"It's more than one key. It is just completely different from anything we’ve ever ran here," says the senior from Collins, Miss. "For the last couple of years, we've run just a straight-up, downhill type of run game -- just man-on-man, who can root the other one out of the hole. We still have that, but now we're stretching teams. We're cutting people off. We're letting our backs make cuts and getting people out of position, and the back only has to find a crease instead of us having to push people back 5 yards to make a big play. That's really a big change."

The difference remains a work in progress for both players who now find themselves studying every level of the defense -- not just the frontline -- and battling for a starting spot in Kiffin's open casting call.

"I know me and Josh have trouble sometimes with what coach Chaney wants us to get done, the calls he wants us to make noticing 'backer rotation and safeties coming down and stuff," says the 6-foot-1-inch, 260-pound Sullins. "But we've put in a whole lot of the playbook, and there's a lot more on the centers that coach Chaney wants us to get done.

"I really do feel there's a lot more responsibility on there. Last year, we had to make the defensive calls and all that, but with coach Chaney we have to really understand what we're doing.
We never in the past had to look at the secondary and see what their rotation is doing. We never had to know flow of linebackers and all that. That's really the main things, 'backer motion and safety rotation that we really have to pick up on. Every level of the field instead of just a few people."

Kiffin's reasoning for such an approach is elementary.

"We teach them the stuff outside the box to be able to see everything that goes on, be able to understand some of the stuff in the passing game. When I'm not out there on game day, I can’t help them," the Vols' coach says. "So they've got to help themselves."

McNeil and Sullins already are doing so with a friendly but spirited competition for first-team honors. Though McNeil owns a start in every UT game since the 2006 contest at Memphis, coaches are touting an all-out battle between the veteran McNeil and savvy Sullins.

"I think it provides competition for both of us," Sullins says. "It's only going to draw out the best in us; we’re both going to work as hard as we can. We both want to do as good as we can. I think it's a good thing overall."

Roommates as freshmen and still bunking together on road games, Sullins and McNeil aren't letting the battle for playing time impact their long-standing friendship.

"I guess you could call it a competition but it's all in the goodness of the sport. We were suite-mates in Gibbs (Hall) and we’re on the road rooming with each other during the season," explains Sullins. "We're good friends. We just kid each other about stuff, but we help each other out a lot. (McNeil) has taught me more about this position than I could ever learn on my own."

That's relatively heady praise for McNeil coming from a player in Sullins known for his studious habits.

"I like it. I'd like to be known as a hard-nosed player, too. But it's never a cut-down to be known as a smart player," says Sullins. "I feel like I'm a smart guy, but I feel like the kind of knowledge I need in football will only come with experience and the more experience I have, the more I'll learn it and the more I'll see and be able to recognize things."

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