KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee's offensive line knows its importance.
If there are no holes or no push up front, the Volunteers' running backs won't be able to gain yards. Quarterback Tyler Bray can't throw the ball to one of his talented receivers if he's being chased by an opposing defensive lineman or linebacker.
As key as each of the 11 individuals on UT's offense are to the unit's overall success, the five big guys up front embrace some extra responsibility.
"The team basically follows us," right guard Zach Fulton said after the Vols' fifth training-camp practice on a muggy Tuesday afternoon.
"If we do bad in practice, it basically means the whole team's not going to do very well in practice. We've got to set the tempo as an offensive line. We know the receiving corps is great, so if we give Tyler time, he'll get the ball to somebody."
No unit on UT's team has taken more heat in the last year than the offensive line. Though the pass protection improved dramatically from 2010, the Vols were 116th in the country in rushing last season. The 1,081-yard total was the program's lowest output since since 1964, when UT ran for 839 yards. The Vols finished with negative rushing yardage last year against Florida and Georgia, managed just 35 against South Carolina and averaged less than 3 yards per carry against Montana and Middle Tennessee State.
Though not the only source of problems, the group, with new coach Sam Pittman, took a clean-slate, chip-on-the-shoulder mentality during the offseason. It showed in Monday's practice, though the defense answered back Tuesday, according to some players. The offensive line won't prove anything until the season starts, however.
By then, the Vols' front five hope they're even more accustomed to setting the tone.
"I'd be crushed if they didn't set the tone," coach Derek Dooley said. "These guys have been in the program three years. At some point take ownership -- take ownership of the practice, 'Let's go' -- and they're doing a good job of that."
Fulton is among a quartet who have 82 combined starts the past two seasons. Right tackle Ja'Wuan James, center James Stone and Fulton finished their freshman seasons in 2010 as starters, and fifth-year senior left guard Dallas Thomas began that season as a first-time starter.
Dooley has cited the group as an example of his program's growth in his 31 months.
"Me, James and Ja'Wuan and Dallas, we were all first-time starters," Fulton said. "Now we're considered veterans. We've grown a lot, and we've brought along the young guys as well.
"It's pretty cool to know we're considered veterans now. We pretty much know our plays. I don't even have to bring my playbook home anymore."
The Illinois native said he's trimmed his body-fat percentage and now weighs 326 pounds, a happy medium between the 338 he reached after his freshman season and the 313 he carried last season. Fulton has the appearance of a typical road-grading guard, and he and James have been staples on the right side of UT's line for 15 consecutive games.
Now that duo, and their three trench teammates, must build on that experience.
"It's getting to the point where they don't even need to say anything because they kind of already know what they're doing," Bray said. "Coaches are yelling at them because they're not talking, but they know what they've got. They know what the other person's going to do.
"This offensive line, I'm not really scared of anyone getting to me. They're a great offensive line. I couldn't ask for a better group of guys."
UT's tone-setters know their responsibility as the foundation for the offense's success.
"It's no pressure," Fulton said. "It's what we do. It's what we've been trained to do."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
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 ...