KNOXVILLE -- James Stone and Zach Fulton shared a room on Tennessee's campus for two years.
The two offensive linemen can't share the Volunteers' starting right guard spot, though.
Fulton has started 15 straight games at the position, but Stone performed well enough while his friend missed the first two weeks of spring practice to force a competition between the two rising juniors.
"It's not different," Stone said Friday of competing against Fulton, "because we've all been battling for positions since we all got here.
"I feel like it's really good. It really fuels everybody because now you have the ones and the twos out there, and you're seeing good football being played on the field. You're seeing the guys really trying to get better [because] there's no room for anybody to be complacent in this environment."
A stress fracture in his foot sidelined Fulton for a big chunk of the offseason. The 6-foot-5, 317-pound Illinois native suffered the injury during a conditioning workout and missed six weeks. He admitted it was "pretty tough" to watch his fellow offensive linemen from a distance.
"I was over there on the [stationary] bike wishing I could be out there with my guys," Fulton said this week. "I wasn't able to go out there and grind with them. It was very hard for me."
There's no time for sulking now, and Fulton's play this week leading up to this afternoon's scrimmage has made that very clear. Sam Pittman, UT's new offensive line coach, said Fulton came back like the Vols "hoped he would." It helped that he returned to the practice field knowing he would have to earn his spot back from Stone.
"If Zach wants that spot," Pittman said, "he's going to have to come back and get it. He understands that.
"I'm going to be honest with them, I'm going to be frank with them and I don't want to lose that room in any way. I'm going to coach them hard, but that's the only way we're going to do it. I'm going to look him in the eye and tell him our situation, and if he wants his situation to change, he'll change it."
Pittman's attitude isn't lost on his players.
"That means a lot," Stone said, "to know you can trust your coach and know he's going to go to bat for you. We respect him for that, and we all respect each other. We like that."
Battling for a starting spot is nothing new for Stone. As a freshman, he started three games at left guard and finished the season as the starting center. His attempt at becoming a right-handed snapper eventually backfired, though, as the left-hander from Nashville lost his job after six games because of recurring bad snaps.
After starting one game at left guard, the 6-foot-3, 310-pounder lost that spot to true freshman Marcus Jackson. UT head coach Derek Dooley was frank in assessing Stone's low strength levels last season and said he would have benefited from redshirting his first season. Stone always has been an intelligent player who's worked hard, and he insists he's a different player now.
"I feel like I've grown physically," he said. "I feel like I've learned more about the offense. I'm just growing as a player. I feel like I'm just developing and trying to get better every day."
After last season's debacle in which the Vols finished 116th nationally in rushing, they came into spring practice with essentially every offensive line position up for grabs. Instead of having to plug guys in out of necessity, the unit is one of the deepest on the team. But it needed significant improvement.
"I think it was important after the season that they really earned the right to their job," Dooley said. "I mean, if you make all-conference, OK, I get it. But when you don't have the season the way we wanted to have, we didn't have a lot of great production up front, so they were starters by default.
"It was just all under the guise of promoting competition, and Zach is playing well, but James is too. If James hadn't been playing well, Zach might have moved up in that one spot, but we've got about eight guys up front right now playing really well. It's helped. It's good; it's healthy."
Pittman said Stone is quicker and plays his fits better. Fulton, he added, is bigger and stronger. Both players have areas that need work, and they're probably helping each other with those.
"I've known James ever since the day I got my scholarship -- around the time when I committed," Fulton said. "We've been pretty cool. We know each other a lot.
"I'm pretty confident [I'll get my spot back]. But me and James are competing for the spot. I have no problem with doing that."
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 ...
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