KNOXVILLE -- Aaron Douglas's temporary personal leave of absence has left the University of Tennessee football team with one borderline proven offensive linemen on the field.
Right guard Jarrod Shaw is the only big man with any moderate game experience. He's been joined on the first-team unit this week by left tackle Dallas Thomas, left guard Cody Pope, center Victor Thomas and right tackle JerQuari Schofield.
Thomas played defensive tackle until last season's bowl practices. Pope has played every position on the offensive line, as well as defensive tackle and tight end. Schofield and Thomas, though arguably the new-look front five's most talented duo, have spent most of their young UT careers trying to add size in the cafeteria and weight room.
Even most casual Vols' fans acknowledge that offensive line is the biggest question mark on a team full of question marks.
"Any time you have somebody saying you're the weak link or whatever, you want to show out," Pope said Saturday. "You want to show people you're not the weak link. You want to show people, 'Don't worry about us. We'll be just fine.'
File Staff Photo by Angela Lewis UT's Victor Thomas
"Honestly, at the end of the day, we are going to be just fine. And we all know that. Right now, we're not where we need to be. But at the end of spring and fall camp, when it comes game time, we will be ready."
Pope said the difference in Thomas from practice 1 to practice 2 last week was "night and day."
Thomas was more modest, but he admitted his confidence has steadily grown since December.
"Pass sets are a lot different than rushing the passer, but I'm getting there," said Thomas, who now fits approximately 290 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame.
Thomas spent the offseason adding weight and working on his stance. Dedication wasn't a problem. He played offensive line in high school and loved the previous coaching staff's decision to move him there.
"I've worked hard on staying low, because the center's stance is different," Thomas said. "I'm used to being in a three-point stance and coming off the ball, but this is totally different. Technique-wise, I'm getting more comfortable with it. But with (learning) the plays, I've got a long way to go."
Pope said Thomas simply needs to keep learning his new position and playbook at the same pace he has to this point.
"You can hear all the quarterbacks saying his snaps are better," Pope said. "That and other little things like that, you can just tell. With him calling the calls, that's a huge thing for offensive linemen, when you can depend on your center, because he's the middle linebacker of our offense.
"He'll get there. We'll all get there."
Thomas agreed with Pope's opinion on the end result.
"We're very confident, because we do a lot of work off the field together," Thomas said. "We've got that companionship and camaraderie going to help us on the field."
The lineup could change this week, though. Or the next week. Or this summer. Or in September. First-year head coach Derek Dooley recognizes the complete lack of experience up front and said he won't hesitate to tinker in the coming months.
Douglas will be a starting tackle -- probably the left tackle -- if his personal situations settle before preseason camp. Youngsters such as Daniel Hood, former Rhea County High School star Kevin Revis or freshman super prospect Ja'Wuan James could join the rotation. Center Carson Anderson could get in the mix, as well. Highly-touted freshmen James Stone and Zach Fulton will get looks when they arrive on campus this summer.
"Nothing is set in stone," Pope said. "We've just kind of thrown that out there for the first week, and we'll see what happens. All this could be mixed up next week, and the week after that, too. We don't really know anything other than we have to keep working hard every day."
Potential UT starting quarterback Nick Stephens eagerly noted the progress of his protectors.
"It's unreal how good they're doing right now," Stephens said. "For being just the second day out there, and those guys not having much experience, to come out here and play the way they've been playing ... I've got all the confidence in the world that at the end of the spring, they're going to be great. It's unreal right now. It really is."
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