KNOXVILLE—Derek Dooley probably cringed whenever he thought about his offensive line this time last year.
Though Tennessee’s second-year football coach is far from feeling completely confident about a group that entered last season with three combined career starts, the maturation of a line that relied on three true freshmen most of last season likely has him a little less restless.
Four freshmen and one sophomore combined to start 44 games a year ago, and the Volunteers got boosts to their depth with the spring additions of Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard and freshman early enrollee Marcus Jackson.
“I think from where we were a year ago to where we are now, the development of the offensive line has been probably the most consistent,” Dooley said in April. “We feel like we’ve got some big, strong, athletic and talented players there.
“This time last year we didn’t have an offensive line. We’ve made a lot of progress there, but we’re not where we need to be when you say, ‘OK, we’ve got enough bodies and let’s develop them.’ We’re getting there on the offensive line.”
Departed senior Jarrod Shaw was the only player who entered the 2010 season with any real game experience as Dallas Thomas and freshmen Ju’Wuan James, Zach Fulton and James Stone were tossed into starting roles. As expected with such a young line, the Vols struggled to protect their quarterbacks and battled inconsistency in opening holes in the run game.
Line coach Harry Hiestand, who spent five seasons with the NFL’s Chicago Bears before coming to UT, said summer workouts are important for improving strength and continuity, especially for the quartet of James, Stone, Fulton and JerQuari Schofield as they try to make the jump from erratic freshmen to dependable sophomores.
“There’s progress. They’re getting better and all that,” Hiestand said, “but I think where I think we’ll see a difference is at the end of training camp as we get into the next season after two good, full months of weight [training]. They only had a six- or seven-week program in January and February and March — that’s it. You’re not going to be that much different.”
The Vols freshmen also had to survive last season without quality backups. UT didn’t even list reserves on its depth charts on the line’s left side throughout most of last season. Jackson’s impressive spring got him a first-team spot at left guard, and Bullard began working at center before taking over first-team reps at right tackle when James’ spring was prematurely ended by mononucleosis.
Those spring surprises, along with the June arrival of mammoth freshman tackle Antonio Richardson — nicknamed “Tiny” at 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds — and redshirt freshman tackle Marques Pair’s rehabilitation from offseason ACL surgery, figure to shore up UT’s depth.
“We feel more comfortable than we were a year ago,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “A year ago we couldn’t even put five guys out there. We weren’t sure who it was going to be and even throughout the fall we struggled with that. We’ve come a long way with regards to depth.”
The extra bodies and the versatility of Bullard and Stone, who played both center and guard last season, could give the Vols options and the opportunity to experiment with different lineups in hopes of getting the best five linemen on the field. Jackson and Schofield exited spring bracketed as co-starters at left guard, but with Richardson’s size and raw talent and Bullard’s abilities at two positions, the competition this summer and into fall camp in August is likely to expand beyond one position.
“I feel more comfortable,” Chaney said, “as we walk into the [August] practices that we’ll have enough guys in Harry’s group that we’ll have competition, which inevitably makes you better. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re considerably better than we were a short [time] ago.”
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 ...