KNOXVILLE—What Alex Bullard does for the University of Tennessee football team isn’t the easiest of chores.
Instead of focusing entirely on just one of the positions in the offensive line, the sophomore is learning center, guard and tackle, which makes him a valuable piece for the Volunteers.
“He gets about 20 percent of the reps that the other guys get at a position,” coach Derek Dooley said after the first of two practices Thursday. “It’s hard on him, but it’s very valuable for us because when we’ve got a little hole to plug, he’s like the cork.”
The 6-foot-2, 309-pound Bullard might be more than just a cork, though. Dooley said after Tuesday’s scrimmage that the Vols would look in a different direction at left guard, and Bullard began working at the position with the first team on Thursday ahead of freshman early enrollee Marcus Jackson and third-year sophomore JerQuari Schofield.
After transferring to UT from Notre Dame as a walk-on in January, Bullard worked primarily at center and tackle in the spring, though he was learning all five spots.
“I think I can help this team at every position,” he said. “I’m obviously more comfortable at the guard position and center because I’m not the prototypical size at tackle, but I can play all three positions and compete and help us win. I just want to learn all three positions, because if somebody goes down or something happens, I want to be the guy that they put in.”
James Stone played both guard and center as a freshman last season, and Dooley said Thursday the Vols feel good about how the left-handed Stone is adjusting to snapping right-handed. The Vols want to get the best five linemen on the field, and with Ja’Wuan James and Zach Fulton locking down the right side and Dallas Thomas entrenched at left tackle, Bullard’s physical tools and intelligence give him an advantage in that competition.
“He’s got a kind of body type that he can be a good physical guard,” Dooley said. “He’s not a prototypical tackle, but he’s got enough range to hold up in space. He’s smart and he’s tough, so when you’ve got the right kind of body type that can hold up at every position, then your athleticism — the ability to bend and do all those position specifics — says a lot.
“A lot of guys are smart, but either they lack power for guard or lack the range for tackle or lack the command for center. He’s kind of a jack of all.”
The former four-star prospect out of Brentwood Academy said learning each position has helped him better understand the others.
“Obviously snapping the ball at center is the biggest thing,” he said, “and I think at guard, most of the time you’re at the point of attack if you’re the guard on the front-side play, so you really have to dig low and get those guys out of there. Tackle’s more speed, footwork, blocking faster guys, but they’re all similar.
“A drive block for a tackle is really no different than a drive block for a center or a guard, except the center has to snap the ball and do it. It all ties together.”
Stone, who’s viewed by his teammates as one of the smartest Vols, has joined Bullard in working toward becoming the Vols’ most flexible pieces up front.
“He’s been putting in a lot of work off the field,” Stone said. “We’ve been getting together a lot in the summer and so far in camp too to watch film so we can work this stuff out, because I know how it is to try to learn more than one position. He’s doing a great job with it.”
Said Bullard: “If the coaches at the end of the day ... decide that I’m one of the top five guys, then of course I’ll be in there. But if not, I’ll be ready to go if somebody goes down, so we don’t miss a beat. I think I can find a home at any [line] position.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...