KNOXVILLE — Sam Pittman declined to reveal a number. He just knows it's a high one.
Tennessee's first-year offensive line coach paused for a moment when asked how many of the seven linemen the Volunteers are playing regularly this season could play in the NFL.
"A lot of them," Pittman, who began coaching the position at the Bowl Subdivision level in 1994, said after Wednesday's practice. "I'm not going to put a number. But you know, a lot of them.
"We've got good players. Somebody asked coach [Derek Dooley] the other day I heard, and they asked about the line … and his answer was it starts with the players. It does."
Three NFL scouts in attendance for Tennessee's practice Thursday morning began their viewing with Pittman's bunch, which is proving itself this season after struggling mightily last season. After finishing last in the Southeastern Conference and 116th nationally in rushing in 2011, Tennessee ranks seventh and 45th this year with a per-game average that's almost 100 yards higher.
The three sacks allowed by the Vols are the fewest in the SEC.
The Vols ran for 197 yards against a Georgia front that features some future NFL players. Injuries that sidelined its two top tailbacks didn't stop Tennessee from racking up 213 rushing yards against Mississippi State.
Saturday night provides an even tougher test, as top-ranked Alabama ranks first nationally in the five major defensive categories and allows just 55.3 rushing yards per game and 1.76 yards per carry, the best in the nation by half a yard.
"If we come in here this week and we do our stuff, it'll really show the world Tennessee's offensive line is elite," said left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, the lone first-year starter on the Vols' line. "You can't sugarcoat it: They're good. I just feel like if we come in there and do what we do and get our five on their five, we're going to be successful.
"We can't overhype them. We've just got to go in there and play."
According to the star ranking systems recruiting services use to rate players, the success of Tennessee's offensive line shouldn't come as a surprise. Richardson and right tackle Ja'Wuan James were ranked among the top 75 players nationally, according to Rivals.com. Center James Stone, left guard and sixth man Marcus Jackson and utility man Alex Bullard, who signed with Notre Dame out of high school in 2009, were rated as four-star prospects.
Starting right guard Zach Fulton and starting left guard Dallas Thomas were only three-star players, but Fulton had an offer from LSU and Thomas is 19th overall and third among offensive linemen in ESPN analyst Todd McShay's ranks for April's NFL draft.
"I've been at places where we weren't very talented, and therefore we weren't very good," Pittman said. "A coach can get a lot of credit and he can get a lot of blame, and he doesn't need as much credit and he don't need as much blame, to be honest with you -- somewhere in the middle.
"But our kids are talented, they're having fun and they're flying off the ball."
It wasn't always that way, and it took the group some time, some struggles and plenty of criticism to reach their current level of production. James has started every game of his career, and fellow 2010 class signees Stone and Fulton joined him later that season. Richardson's talent was enough to prompt Thomas to slide inside one spot after starting 25 straight games at left tackle, and Jackson and Bullard combined to 17 games last season.
"They've played very consistently every game," head coach Derek Dooley said. "You've got four guys up there in their third or fourth year of the program, and the one that's not is in his second year and has some really special ability. This is a group that was totally maligned last year, saying they stink and we need to replace them, and it just shows you the value of staying the course when you've got the right kind of guys in place.
"We never really lost confidence in what their future held. We certainly were disappointed in how they were performing last year, but they've made an incredible commitment to stay the course and the results are showing."
The experience and the addition of Pittman to replace Harry Hiestand, who's now at Notre Dame coaching a line that paves the way for an Irish rushing attack that ranks 47th nationally, have done the trick.
"It changed the whole room," James said of Pittman. "It changed everything, and he definitely has helped. It's showing out there on the field and in the stats and stuff.
"He's more personal with us. He has our room excited to go out there and have fun and play good football. We feel like we're having more fun."
Pittman's meeting room is full of different personalities, he said, but it's hardly all fun and no work. After spending five seasons at North Carolina, Pittman said shortly after he was hired at Tennessee that he believed the cupboard was far from being bare. He soon found out his players had the needed work ethic.
"I knew they were talented and all, but I've coached some talented kids that weren't hard workers," he said. "This group works hard. It hadn't been a surprise, but it's been a welcome positive."
The negativity aimed at the offensive line has worn off by this season's midway point, but Pittman believes it served as motivation during the offseason. The wins haven't been there, but the improvement is obvious. Pittman prefers a confident group, and he's got one.
"The confidence level is we can run against anybody and we can pass-block against anybody," Richardson said.
Saturday night, they'll be running and pass-blocking against the best.
"They know more about Alabama than even I do, because they've played them and they were recruited together," Pittman said. "I think they're excited about the challenge. They also know it's going to be a big-time battle.
"I think we can be quite a bit better than what we're playing right now. We'll continue to work and try to get that done. We'll see a lot Saturday."
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 ...