KNOXVILLE — Marques Pair moved up from the scout team to 2-deep status for Tennessee’s football practice Tuesday.
“We had to bring up Pair,” coach Derek Dooley said. “He got more reps than he’s ever gotten.”
That’s not exactly what the Volunteers needed — another true freshman offensive lineman getting ready to play in a game.
Dooley said Pair “could” play some snaps at left tackle against UAB on Saturday.
“We’re running out of guys,” the coach said. “Early on with him, it was maybe, ‘Get in there and take your time.’ Now it’s, ‘Look out, watch out, you could be in there.’”
Coaches like Pair’s potential, but they hoped to redshirt the 6-foot-6, 275-pounder. That’s probably not an option at this point.
James Stone, another true freshman, is officially listed as the Vols’ No. 2 left tackle. But Stone became the starting left guard when redshirt freshman JerQuari Schofield broke a foot bone against Florida on Saturday.
Versatile senior Jarrod Shaw — who with six career starts is the team’s most experienced lineman — could bounce outside to left tackle if starting sophomore Dallas Thomas went down. Or Shaw could move to right tackle, with true freshman Ja’Wuan James switching to quarterback Matt Simms’ blindside.
“I hope we don’t get to that,” Dooley said. “Let’s don’t talk about that. We’ve got enough on our plate.”
Dooley’s comments aside, he and his staff go into every game with contingency plans. Thomas said the line practiced injury scenarios in the summer, simulating what would happen if any of the five starters went down.
“It’s going pretty good,” Thomas said. “We just have to work at it. Everything is going to work out and be OK.”
The Florida game could have been worse, Simms said. UT’s quarterback said the “truly unique” Stone handled himself well after being thrust into the lineup against the Gators.
“Even though he’s a freshman, he doesn’t really act like it in the locker room and out there on the field,” Simms said. “When he came in that huddle against Florida, he didn’t seem nervous at all, whatsoever.”
Zach Fulton, another true freshman, could split time with Shaw at right guard Saturday. Sophomore Darin Gooch, a junior college signee, will start again at center if junior Cody Pope (stinger, concussion) misses another game.
“Half the game you are going to see three true freshmen and two sophomores. That’s our offensive line,” Dooley said. “You’ll see them half the game, hopefully, because that means they’re healthy.”
It’s no small wonder Dooley said the line occasionally struggled to “get a hat on a hat” the past two weeks against fifth-ranked Oregon and the ninth-ranked Gators.
Dooley often compares the in-game vision of a young offensive linemen — especially the guards and centers, who have to deal with myriad stunts and twists — to looking through a kaleidoscope.
“It’s hard,” Dooley said. “Offensive line is a thinking man’s game, I hate to say it. You have to combine some great physical toughness and endurance, but you have to be so mentally sharp. It’s very difficult to play offensive line if you can’t think quickly and react.”
Those things get easier with time, but the Vols don’t have time.
After UAB, UT faces a brutal October schedule — at No. 15 LSU, at Georgia, home against No. 1 Alabama and a trip to No. 12 South Carolina.
“I think they’re doing a great job of coming in and answering the call when the opportunity is coming,” junior tailback Tauren Poole said of the young linemen. “I know it’s tough being a freshman, coming right out of high school and [facing] everything that’s thrown at you out on this football field.
“They have all the physical tools. Once they get the mental aspect down, they’ll be fine.”
Sophomore David Oku, Poole’s backup, was equally optimistic. Oku ran behind a young offensive line his senior season at Oklahoma’s Carl Albert High School, and early-season frustration turned into a state championship appearance.
“Things don’t always go right, but you just have to be patient with the guys,” Oku said. “They’ll be fine. They’ll be fine. They continue to surprise me a lot. Sometimes you just have to wait.
“It’s a development process.”
UT has little choice but to take some lumps in the short term, but Dooley and his veterans insist the Vols have a solid front line at some point in the near future.
“I can’t wait to come back in a few years and see how good those guys are,” senior defensive end Chris Walker said. “I’m telling you, they’re not just going to be good in the future. They’re going to be great.”
But when does that future start? Saturday? October? November? Next season?
And what can Dooley and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand do in the meantime?
“We have to do a good job of developing a plan so they can go out there and function and get hats on hats,” Dooley said. “If we do that, we will be OK. I can’t get them experience without playing them, and we can’t look on the free agent wire right now and pick up some guys off the street.
“This is what we are. We have to coach them and go win with them.”
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesrucker or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.