KNOXVILLE -- An injury forced a change in position and wardrobe for Tennessee's Alex Bullard.
Once a jumbo tight end wearing No. 89, he dusted off his old No. 78 jersey and jumped in at right guard in the place of injured starter Zach Fulton against Alabama.
Bullard, the Volunteers' utility offensive lineman, or usual left guard and sixth man Marcus Jackson could start there Saturday at 17th-ranked South Carolina.
"I thought going in there I did good and picked up the slack a little bit," Bullard said Tuesday morning. "I wasn't perfect by any means, but we have to be ready. We just have to step it up this week because we're going to be asked to play a little more in maybe a little bit different role."
Who will fill Fulton's starting role remains uncertain, though Bullard worked with the first team during the open viewing period of Tuesday's practice. Fulton, a 22-game starter at right guard, is doubtful to play with a left ankle sprain. He was in a walking boot during practice Tuesday.
The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Bullard, who started all 12 games at center last season, replaced Fulton midway through the second quarter. He's been wearing No. 89 this season due to his role as a oversized second tight end. The versatile Nashville native has worked at each line position since transferring to Tennessee from Notre Dame last January.
"Anything to help us win, I enjoy doing," Bullard said. "Tight end's fun -- going down and blocking a defensive end or a Sam linebacker. It's a different type of player that you're blocking, a little bit more athletic player, [so] the technique's a little different.
"I still have a long way to go working on it, but I'm getting used to it."
Sophomore Jackson is used to playing regularly at left guard in Tennessee's seven-man rotation. The Florida native and former four-star prospect started the last five games of 2011 at the position. He knew he'd be a regular off the bench as early as the preseason.
"[The coaches] told me I would rotate in, I would be getting reps and that might reps would increase the better I played and the better I practiced and the more consistent I got," Jackson said.
"It was tough. It's a hard thing to swallow, but you've got to used to it and you've got to push on. "It's life; you can't get mad over things that you have no control over. What I have control over is I can get better every day and push. If my number's called, I will get it done."
Coach Derek Dooley appreciates the depth Bullard and Jackson provide for the offensive line.
"I've said it all year, that we kind of felt like we had seven starters," he said. "You never want one of your five to go down, but we have a lot of confidence in him and Marcus to play that right guard spot. That's important to have depth because you're always going to have injuries.
"We told them, 'Look, you play well and you're going to play.' The good competitors, when things don't go their way, they keep working at it, and good things come to them. The ones that aren't good competitors, they want to take their ball and go home."
After directing some critical comments publicly toward them on Monday, Dooley said quarterback Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter were "good" in their responses Tuesday.
Hunter, the star wideout, has just nine catches and two notable drops in the Vols' four Southeastern Conference games this season. Dooley said the junior has not performed to his billing as one of the top-rated receivers for April's NFL draft. A couple of posts on his Twitter page later Monday appeared to indicate Hunter was unhappy with his coach's comments, but he cleared the air Tuesday.
"Everybody has their own opinion," he said. "That's my coach. He sees me every day, so he knows what I'm doing and what I'm not doing right.
"I can say I think I've been practicing pretty good and [playing] in the games pretty good. But I know the two drops held me back. I don't take anything personal."
Said Dooley: "He had a great swagger coming into the year. We've got to get that back."
Hunter also was asked if any thoughts about his status with the NFL were affecting his play.
"I just focus on now, what's going on now," he said. "I can't have my mind clouded and distracted by all that when I've got to have a season right here with my team. I try hard to not think about it.
"It has been brought up, and I just tell them that I don't feel like hearing it."
Dooley said his comments toward Bray's ditching of postgame media responsibilities and recent rash of turnover-prone play are nothing out of the ordinary and have produced responses in the past.
"I was pretty tough on him after the Georgia game," he said. "Not publicly, but I was. He went in the Mississippi State game and did a really nice job.
"I really was proud of how he performed there. It isn't like I've been sitting there saying, 'You're OK, you're good.' We address his issues every week, and then he shows progress."
Starting tailback Rajion Neal (ankle) practiced some Tuesday morning. Dooley said the Vols' leading rusher remains probable for South Carolina. Marlin Lane, who tallied more than 100 yards of offense against Alabama, worked with the first-team offense Tuesday. ... Linebacker Curt Maggitt (stinger, turf toe) gutted out 62 snaps against Alabama. "A lot of ball," Dooley noted. "If we can get that out of him, we're lucky." ... The Vols have remained "very consistent" with their practice habits and routines in their losing streak, but Dooley said the biggest thing is rediscovering some confidence to perform on Saturdays.
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 ...