James Stone of the University of Tennessee football team. (AP Photo/The Tennessean, Larry McCormack)
KNOXVILLE -- Jim Chaney was taken aback when a reporter told him Wednesday night that he'd spoken with University of Tennessee true freshman guard James Stone earlier in the day.
"Did he talk?" UT's offensive coordinator asked. "Did he actually talk?"
Yes, he talked. He talked very softly, but he talked.
The big, budding star from Nashville apparently talks softly but carries a big body. And a really big brain.
"He's driven to be successful in life -- not just football," Chaney said. "He's going to end up being one [heck] of a football player at Tennessee, and even a better ambassador for this university for years to come. He's got a special future in front of him. I look forward to following him wherever he goes. He's one of my favorites. I think he's just a really special."
"Intellectual values are off-the-charts with that boy. Nothing is going to keep him from being successful in life. Football just happens to be another venue in his life."
Stone wasn't just one of the nation's most highly coveted offensive line prospects last year. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound kid was a complete package. He received the prestigious William Hume Award as the Nashville area's top high school scholar-athlete.
College coaches from coast to coast showered Stone with letters, basically begged him to visit their campuses and sat in his living room begging for his verbal commitment.
Many raved about the kid's NFL potential, but few paid more than token lip service to the full college experience.
Chaney, who looks and acts nothing like the cliched, carbon-copy coach, was an exception.
Derek Dooley, who practiced law before embarking on a coaching career, was an exception.
And those are the single biggest reasons why Stone will wear Tennessee orange -- not Alabama crimson -- when the archrivals play Saturday night.
Stone said he'd have signed with Alabama if Lane Kiffin was still UT's head coach.
"Coach Dooley told me about his plan for Tennessee, and he told me what type of coach he was," Stone said. "I just knew with his personality that he was the guy that I wanted to be coached by and wanted to be led by. He had a winning mentality. He wanted to come in and do things the right way.
"Yeah, you could call it a leap of faith, but character is always going to be concrete wherever you are."
Stone's intellectual prowess has also been cemented in his teammate's minds. Offensive linemen and quarterbacks are required to take 50-page schematic tests on Friday nights before road games, and the true freshman is 2-for-2 on finishing the test first.
Junior quarterback Matt Simms confessed to peaking over Stone's big shoulders to see his answers.
"You talk to him and realize, 'Wow this guy is a really, really smart guy,'" Simms said. "You sit there and talk about some of the stuff we do offensively, and he's explaining to me how we run certain run plays, and I'm just like, 'Man, this kid is a freshman. I need to step my game up.' He kind of understands it a little better than I do.
"Extremely impressive individual. Just talented, gifted."
But also young, raw.
Stone said he eventually wants to master all five positions on UT's offensive line, and Simms said the freshman has probably already done that -- from an assignment standpoint, anyway. Snapping the ball was a different story, though, so he's back to starting guard for the time being.
"We kind of had to cut him from [center] for a little bit until further notice, because I don't think I've ever jammed so many fingers in a week," Simms said. "It was rough."
In a perfect scenario, Stone would either redshirt or play a small reserve role this season. But as everyone in UT's complex freely admits, this season is far from a perfect scenario. Stone exited preseason camp as a No. 2 left guard, and he entered the first-team lineup on Sept. 18 when redshirt freshman JerQuari Schofield broke his foot against Florida.
Schofield might return in a limited role Saturday, but Stone is at least firmly entrenched in the rotation.
"It's not really surprising, because we never had big numbers. I knew I was going to have to be ready," Stone said of his immediate playing time. "I'm kind of embracing it. It's a learning experience. I've got to learn on the fly, trying to do as good as a can and improve out there on the field."
He's learning quite well, according to Simms.
"I know one thing, he's not losing the battle in technique; let's just put it that way," Simms said. "And against great defensive linemen we play against every week, that's something that is crucial in this environment. Maybe in Florida he got beat up a little bit because he was a little anxious or excited to go in. But you go back to the Georgia game, and in the LSU game, he played extremely well. He never really got beat in one-on-one matchups, and that's what we want."
Chaney can hardly contain his excitement when talking about the future of his extremely young, extremely gifted front five.
But, as Chaney added, some of the lessons Stone and others have learned this season have come on national television against players one draft away from the NFL.
"He's taking his knocks, like all freshman offensive linemen do, and he's learning the hard way," Chaney said. "Get your tail out there and play. He'll have a very clear understanding of what it takes to be successful in this conference at the conclusion of this season. That's good for us. James will be a better football player next year than this year, for obvious reasons.
"Eventually, we should have something pretty special there with that group of guys, and James will be a big part of it."