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Vols fullbacks come up big

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Carries are hard to come by.

But that doesn't mean Tennessee is afraid to put the ball in the hands of a fullback.

Either one of them.

The Vols aren't likely to build their offense around Austin Johnson or Kevin Cooper any time soon, but at least for one night they were among the main attractions in a 31-13 win over No. 21 South Carolina at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.

"We know our role on this team, and that's to block and be able to block for our running backs and give protection (for the quarterback)," Johnson said. "We work on protection, protection, protection, then block, block, block - but when we get in the flat (routes) we know we have to make the most of our opportunities.

"I think we've done a pretty good job of that."

They hardly could have done it any better against the Gamecocks.

Johnson exploited a unique coverage by splitting safeties on UT's second play from scrimmage, hauling in a 38-yard touchdown catch to open the scoring and grab an early lead.

Cooper snagged a two-yarder early in the second quarter on a do-or-die fourth-down play to push the lead to 21 points.

The tandem only combined for one more touch in the game and only accounted for 45 yards on the three catches, but two of them ended in the checkerboards. And they also were able to take credit for UT's other two scores by clearing the way for Montario Hardesty on the ground.

"We feel good," Cooper said. "With us and the running backs, we had all the touchdowns tonight.

"That's our identity. I mean, every game we want to come out and establish the run. Having Montario and Bryce (Brown) run, both of them are great backs and it's fun blocking for them. Seeing them break tackles and do what they do, me and Austin love blocking for them any time."

They also don't mind when the Vols throw something else their way, which hasn't been all that often and probably never will be.

Cooper only had nine catches on the season going into the game and Johnson has just started working his way into the rotation with three off the bench, but when the time and coverage is right, either of them has proven to be capable of giving quarterback Jonathan Crompton a reliable target.

"It's huge, especially when you have fullbacks and tailbacks that both can catch the ball," Crompton said. "That makes the defense cover two more guys and then that can open the receivers, so it makes the passing game that much more efficient."

The Vols weren't clicking through the air quite as well as they had over the last couple games, but Crompton gave them all they needed to put away the Gamecocks.

He completed half of his passes, avoided any costly turnovers and generally seemed to make solid decisions. And when the Vols needed a score, Crompton only had to look for a fullback.

"It's something that we had never done before (with Johnson)," Kiffin said. "It was really only for the coverage that they play that's very unique, the Virginia Tech coverage that they've played for years. It's something where we can put the fullback down the middle, and it was a good throw by Jonathan, a good play by Austin.

"It was really good for us to get some excitement right away in the game and capitalize on a turnover. We haven't been great this year on sudden change and capitalizing on turnovers."

Kiffin found a couple guys to do it Saturday. Both of them were hiding in the backfield.