KNOXVILLE — Kevin Cooper wanted to battle David Holbert for the University of Tennessee’s starting fullback job.
Now the former Baylor School standout might be battling to keep the fullback spot in the 2008 playbook.
With Holbert’s season and career in serious jeopardy following Saturday’s nasty knee injury, Cooper now sits atop the depth chart. But coach Phillip Fulmer and first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson haven’t ruled out any possibilities at that position. Options include personnel moves and more open sets.
“We certainly need to assess some things there,” Clawson said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “We’ll see where we’re at and where we go from here. We don’t seem to have many bodies there, at least for now.”
Fulmer called Holbert’s injury a dislocated knee, but that might only begin to describe the damage. Holbert’s leg bent back severely and awkwardly after his cleats stuck in the turf on a crushing Rico McCoy tackle near the sideline.
“He’ll have some surgery, and what happens for the fall will be determined,” Fulmer said after Tuesday’s practice. “Fortunately, he didn’t have any artery damage or nerve damage or anything from that dislocation. So we’re glad for that.”
Several teammates said Holbert, who missed what would’ve been his senior season last year with a torn ACL, remains optimistic about a potential return. If he misses all of next season, he would seem to present a strong appeal case to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. Players who miss two entire seasons are rare exceptions to an otherwise stiff five-year, four-season policy.
Anyone who saw Holbert’s injury could fairly question his chance to return, but Cooper said he won’t count him out.
“He’s looking at everything positively,” Cooper said. “Everybody knows it’s not the first time this has happened to him. I feel bad for him, but I know he’ll make it through this. He’s got a big heart. I know he’ll make it.”
Fulmer summed up Cooper’s spring in simple terms.
“Kevin’s done a good job, really,” Fulmer said. “He had an excellent Thursday scrimmage and a not-so-good Saturday scrimmage, and then today, right up until the end, he wasn’t out there. He’s still got to prove himself, but he’s certainly shown flashes of being a good player.”
Cooper said he feels more comfortable in Clawson’s offense, which he said involves a more traditional fullback role. Former coordinator David Cutcliffe preferred more flexibility from that position, especially after Chris Brown’s success last season as a fullback/tight end hybrid, or “H-back.”
“It’s very different now,” Cooper said. “I wasn’t accustomed to playing on the line because I had never played on the line. The fullback here now is a true fullback, catching passes in the flats and everything.”
Asked if he thought Clawson’s system better used his talents, Cooper said, “I think it does.”
He said he felt better-suited for the college game after struggling through his first fall. He cited several areas that still needed polish, though, especially his pass-protection skills.
“There’s always pressure to get on the field,” Cooper said. “Everybody always wants to get on the field anyway. I feel bad that Holbert got hurt. The position won’t just come to me. I’ve still got to earn it, but I wanted to fight for it with Holbert.”
More injury news
Fulmer said linebacker Josh Hawkins (foot) and defensive end Chris Walker (meniscus, left knee) would miss the rest of spring practice — and Nevin McKenzie was doubtful — but that all three would “definitely be back for the fall.”
McKenzie’s sprained knee won’t help his chances in a tight battle for the starting strongside linebacker spot, and promising defensive end prospect Walker could have also used the work. Both players still figure to have significant roles this season, while Hawkins will have to adjust after spending his redshirt season at tailback.
Fulmer said Hawkins and Walker recently underwent successful surgeries and McKenzie’s injury won’t require an operation.