KNOXVILLE -- It's all Zach Fulton's known in his brief University of Tennessee football career.
Whenever the Volunteers' right guard steps on the field for practices and games, there's tackle Ja'Wuan James to his right.
The combined 645-pounds of sophomores took over the right side of UT's offensive line as freshmen during the middle of last season, and their chemistry will continue to improve this fall.
"We're pretty comfortable," Fulton said after Thursday's morning practice. "He knows I've got his back, and I know he has my back, so I'm not too worried about anything on the right side."
James has been entrenched at right tackle since he stepped on campus for spring practice last year, and Fulton joined the starting lineup last October against Alabama. Life in the Southeastern Conference is hard for a freshmen offensive linemen, so the two players easily could relate to each other.
"We needed each other a lot," James said. "It was a good feeling knowing you weren't the only one out there that's being thrown in the fire. Me and Zach were out there together on the right, and we just had each other's backs. I feel like you play better when you're playing for the guy next to you."
The talent, size and growth of the offensive line has been a source of optimism for the Vols this offseason. UT became settled in at all five spots on the line last week with Alex Bullard's performance at left guard, but the right side has been the constant since October.
"I think the whole right side's made tremendous progress," coach Derek Dooley said. "We're not as far along on the left side because it took us awhile to figure out the left guard position. We're not where we need to be, but they're getting better every day. As long as we don't have any injuries or anything crazy happening, I think we've got what we want right there."
Four true freshmen -- left tackle Antonio Richardson, left guard Marcus Jackson, center Mack Crowder and right tackle Kyler Kerbyson -- have been on the second-team offensive line during the early periods of practice that are open to the media. The Vols like their freshmen offensive linemen, but they're still freshmen.
The line's work ethic has drawn praise from Dooley and other Vols most of the offseason and into preseason camp, and it's evidenced by Harry Hiestand, who coached the NFL's Chicago Bears for five seasons before coming to UT, keeping his linemen out there for a little extra work after most of the team has already left the practice field.
"I'm just excited to run behind the whole offensive line," tailback Tauren Poole said. "I wish you guys could see how much they've improved, how much they've matured -- it's a great thing for me to see. I know the coaches love it as well."
With Bullard's arrival in January and the returns of left tackle Dallas Thomas and center James Stone, the continuity among the starters is noticeable, especially on the right side with James and Fulton.
"I feel good playing next to Zach," James said. "We do everything together off the field, and we've been consistently staying on the right side. He hasn't been moved yet and I haven't, either. Coach Hiestand talks about we've got to keep building that trust and just a feel for each other on the right side."
Fulton said he and James created most of their chemistry last season battling through the daunting task of playing in the trenches as freshmen.
"In the hotel rooms before the games we'd do our blocking sheets together and ask each other what the calls were if one of us didn't know it," Fulton said. "We have a lot of chemistry, so we're not really too worried about each other. I know what he's doing, and he knows what I'm doing."
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 ...