KNOXVILLE — Using both hands works best, and James Stone hopes to work that to his advantage.
Tennessee's center is snapping the football with each hand, and the Volunteers coaches believe that's the way to avoid the accuracy issues that were costly at key moments last season.
Right-handed snaps when UT is under center provide a more natural exchange for the quarterback, and Stone is more comfortable on shotgun and pistol snaps using his natural left hand.
"The whole summer we were working on it with Tyler [Bray] and the other quarterbacks," Stone said Saturday after the Vols' second training-camp practice. "I feel I got some good work at guard because I had been at center for a long time. I was able to get some quality reps and really just work on my natural football skills during the spring."
The junior's early-season snapping issues kept Stone from focusing solely on playing. The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder from Nashville started 11 consecutive games over two seasons at center before losing his job to Alex Bullard midway through last season. Stone believes he's positioned himself to take back that job.
"It was such a glaring flaw in my game, and it was really the most important aspect of the game that I was messing up," he said. "It was simple, but it was the most important thing. Since that was happening, we weren't getting plays started and it was hurting the team.
"I feel like it's open season. I really feel like it's mine to take."
Derek Dooley said Stone has been snapping "very consistently" through two helmets-only practices, but the coach wants to measure Stone's performance throughout August, as the pads, blitzes and pressure increase.
As for Bullard, the Notre Dame transfer who started six games at left guard and six at center last season, Dooley said last week the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Nashville native "wasn't quite where we wanted him to be," and the junior's summer commitment level reportedly was lacking. Now Bullard could become the jack-of-all-trades along UT's offensive line.
"We've worked Alex at center and guard," Dooley said. "We're going to work him a little bit at tackle, which we have the last couple of days, to see if could he be that guy. The more guys you have like that, the better."
At this time last year, junior college transfer Maurice Couch barely could finish a practice.
Now the Vols are hoping the 6-foot-2, 299-pounder can provide a disrupting force at nose tackle.
"I [took] things for granted," Couch said. "I thought I was just going to come in and be on top of everything. This year I've kept my head level, and I've just been very hungry and humble."
Though a little smaller than a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle, Couch may be the most proven player UT has at the position. He finished strong last season, racking up five tackles for loss in UT's final six games. Though he's learning the end position, Couch's focus remains at nose.
"He's doing really well," Dooley said. "He's worked hard at his conditioning. He's showing a lot of mental toughness, [and] when he goes all out, he's a pretty good little player."
With intense new coordinator Sal Sunseri, though, Couch isn't stopping to admire his progress.
"With Coach Sal you can never be comfortable with your success," he said. "Even if I feel great about myself, I know I can do better."
The Vols worked on running the triple option again Saturday -- with all three quarterbacks, tailback Marlin Lane and freshman linebacker Justin King, who played Wildcat quarterback in high school.
"We're just trying to go through it and see how it feels," Lane said. "I'll do whatever to help the team. I like the ball in my hands a lot, too, though, but we're just working on things."
Dooley suggested the look might not become a staple in UT's arsenal.
"I don't how much that's going to be a part of our offense," he said, "but it's just finding different ways to do things when what you believe in isn't working or to supplement what you do."
Receiver Da'Rick Rogers from Calhoun, Ga., now at 208 pounds, said he is "the most athletic and fast" he's been in his UT career. ... Dooley said hyped junior college transfer receiver Cordarrelle Patterson "did pretty good" in his first practice Friday night. "He's obviously worked pretty hard the last few weeks in trying to learn the offense," he said, "because he didn't make a lot of mistakes." ... Omari Phillips, a 6-foot-6, 325-pound defensive lineman, is heavier than the Vols would like, but the freshman struggled less than the coach expected. "I think his body composition," Dooley said, "is something we're going to have to go to work on."
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 ...