KNOXVILLE — James Stone understood why things were changing, but his focus and attitude mostly remained the same.
The Tennessee sophomore lost his starting job at center to Alex Bullard and switched to left guard, where he eventually was passed as a starter by true freshman Marcus Jackson. Regarded as one of the Volunteers' most intelligent and hard-working players, Stone hardly changed his approach amid his changing role.
"I know I was putting a lot of time into the center thing, but at the end of the day I just want to be on the line anywhere on the field and I just want to play," he said. "I want to go out there and get better and become a better football player for my team. My focus is just improving as a football player and as an offensive lineman.
"Marcus has been doing really good at practice, and I hadn't really been getting the job done as well as I could have on the field. I felt like I needed to focus not on who's starting, but really focus on why I'm not starting and why I'm not performing the way I need to perform."
Jackson and Stone alternated each series in the Vols' win last week against Middle Tennessee State, and that's likely to continue, coach Derek Dooley said, until one or the other takes firmer control of the starting job.
Stone continues to work on his snaps and would take the center spot if Bullard were to get hurt. At guard, though, he's been able to focus more on fundamentals like his pad leverage, leg drive and overall strength.
"I don't want to make it seem like I'm not worried about starting," he said with a laugh. "It's great to have competition because that means you don't want anybody to get comfortable in their position because then they start losing their drive. When you've got competition, you're always pushing to get better, and that's going to, in turn, make the other guy push to make himself better and make everybody better. It's good for the team when you have competition."
Said Bullard: "I think he had one of his better weeks of practice this past week. He helps me and Marcus out with calls; he still leads us in our film sessions. We're all in it to do what's best for us to win, and James understands that and he keeps chipping away and comes to work every day."
Injured quarterback Tyler Bray has traded a hard cast for more of a brace on his broken right thumb, and his recovery remains on track. The sophomore won't play Saturday at eighth-ranked Arkansas, and his status for next week's game against Vanderbilt is uncertain.
"He doesn't have his range of motion, and it's about what we though it would be," Dooley said Tuesday. "He's right on track, sore and he's got to get his range of motion back, get his strength back. That's what he's working on, lot of rehab.
"I think he can do whatever he's capable of doing. Right now, he's not capable of doing much. I don't think that's as much the issue as just getting him out there where we could put him at risk. That's the biggest concern."
After a quiet October, Jacques Smith made some noise against MTSU, forcing a fourth-quarter fumble in UT territory that helped preserve the Vols' shutout. The former Ooltewah star had just nine tackles in five games last month, including zero-tackle outings against Buffalo and Alabama.
"I'm just going out there playing for our team," the sophomore said. "There's nothing individual that I'm trying to go accomplish. I'm just trying to get a win. However I can contribute to a win, that's how I want to play and that's what I'm willing to do.
"It felt good to get a turnover. Finally one thing goes your way for a change."
Wille Bohannon and Ben Martin were UT's starters at defensive end against MTSU.
Da'Rick Rogers caught nine passes for 137 yards against MTSU, but the sophomore receiver was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after hauling in a 47-yard touchdown throw in the first quarter. Rogers flipped the ball in the general direction of the MTSU player he had just beaten for the score.
"I got in trouble," the former Cahoun (Ga.) star said. "I didn't want to get a penalty; I just wanted to do something to get the team going. It had been a long time since we had been in the end zone, and I thought I could do a little something to get us going."
Rogers' penalty forced third-string kicker Derrick Brodus to kick off from UT's 15-yard line, and MTSU started its next possession at their own 40.
"We handle it internally," Dooley said. "He wasn't the only one at fault. Half the team's looking at the video board laughing, and I'm going off on the sideline. Those kinds of acts are never tolerated or encouraged. It was disappointing. We won't have any more of those."
Linebacker Austin Johnson, who had a sleeve on his left leg and a large brace on his right arm to protect his sore elbow, and tight end Mychal Rivera (foot) wore noncontact jerseys during Tuesday morning's practice. ... Daniel Gray, a 6-foot, 165-pound cornerback from Boyd Anderson High School in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., became UT's 19th commitment for 2012 on Tuesday. He is a three-star prospect according to Rivals.com.
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 ...