Tennessee Stat Book
Channing Fugate was the starter by default a week ago.
Now the true freshman fullback is holding the job because he earned it.
Tennessee didn't bat an eye when it slid Fugate into senior Kevin Cooper's spot in the backfield while Cooper was suspended last weekend at South Carolina, and it had no problem calling Fugate's number or trusting him with every blocking assignment needed. And armed with some evidence of what Fugate can do for the Vols after his first start, coach Derek Dooley decided to give him a second on Saturday (TV: CBS College Sports, 8 p.m.) at Memphis.
"We had full confidence in Channing," Dooley said. "But he went out there and really performed well. I mean, he really elevated his game in some respects.
"Right now, Fugate is playing better than Cooper based on the film. He's earned the right to start again. That's what competition does, that's what having a good, deep team does, it makes everybody play better. He knew he had a one-week shot and he took advantage of it, so we'll see how he does this week."
The defense the Vols (2-6, 0-5 SEC) will be facing comes with a much lower degree of difficulty, but for the most part Fugate held his own in a debut against a fast, physical defense on the road against a ranked opponent.
His impact was hard to measure on the stats sheet with just one catch for four yards in a game where UT again struggled to protect the passer and also was held to just 2.5 yards per carry on the ground. But Fugate's work in the loss to the Gamecocks was impressive enough to the coaching staff to displace a veteran with 24 career starts.
"Last week I was a little unsure how I'd do in there, and when I saw I could go in there and compete and do good, it just gave me a lot more confidence," Fugate said during his first media session since arriving as a midterm enrollee in January. "I thought my first year I would just come in and relieve (Cooper) a little bit, not play much at all other than at the end of the games. Then this opportunity came, and I'm just trying to make the most of it. I didn't ever think it would be right here, right now.
"I just try to go in there and play my hardest and we'll see where it goes from there. I hope the coaches can see now that both me and Coop can get the job done, and it will just make that position better."
The return of Cooper from his academic suspension will at a minimum make the position deeper against the Tigers (1-7, 0-5 Conference USA), which is valuable enough by itself for a roster that's generally short on options at most spots.
But since there doesn't appear to be a significant drop-off in terms of production after Fugate's trial run and Cooper's six catches for 39 in seven games this season, UT might have suddenly found a little more flexibility in its backfield heading into the last month of the season.
"I thought he played a wonderful ballgame for a true freshman starting on the road for his first ballgame," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "I was really impressed, really pleased with him.
"His physical play, his energy at the end of the game, his awareness on the football field, overall awareness - he looked like he belonged. He looked like a fullback, and when we get loose somewhere, he'd be there to back us up. I thought he played with a lot of good instincts and looked like a natural fullback."
So for the second week in a row, that will make Fugate a starting one for the Vols.