University of Tennessee senior center James Stone knows the way it’s supposed to work on college football teams. Offensive linemen quietly provide the heavy lifting. The skill guys — quarterbacks, running backs and wideouts — get the girls and the glory.
And the most bitter irony to that equation is that the better Stone and his fellow grunts along the line perform this season, the more likely the Vols’ quarterbacks, running backs and receivers are to hog both the headlines and the hearts of the Big Orange Nation.
But for now, the start of Butch Jones’s first preseason practice as a UT coach less than 36 hours away, it’s actually Stone and fellow offensive linemen Tiny Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Zach Fulton who are getting most of the attention. If they aren’t quite the squad’s rock stars, they are certainly the pound-the-rock stars of Team 117, as the players and coaches all refer to these Vols.
“It’s kind of weird,” said Stone on Wednesday during the Vols’ preseason media luncheon. “We’re linemen. We’re not used to getting this much recognition. But it has been nice, I guess. We just want to get this season under way.”
The attention officially got under way at SEC Media Days last month, when Richardson and James were named to the media’s second-team All-SEC squad, while Stone and Fulton received third-team honors. For a team that finished 5-7 a year ago, its fourth losing season in five years, that speaks volumes concerning the respect they’ve earned throughout the conference.
“They definitely deserve it,” said senior defensive lineman Corey Miller. “We talk about it all the time on defense. We know that’s the best offensive line we’ll go against all year. They prove it every day.”
Size is certainly a part of their success, even if Jones has successfully asked the group to shed at least 65 pounds between the quintet of Fulton, James, Richardson, Stone and left guard Alex Bullard, the fifth starter on the interior line. Even with that lost weight, the group stands in at a collective 31 feet, 10 inches and 1,561 pounds, their size and talent causing defensive lineman Jacquez Smith to marvel last month: “All those guys are going to be playing on Sunday one day.”
The line often looked capable of that last season. Their size, power and quickness allowed the Vols to rank second in the SEC in total offense (475.9 yards per game) and fourth in scoring average (36.2) despite totaling the fewest snaps of the top five scoring teams.
What UT didn’t do particularly well a year ago was run the ball, finishing eighth among 14 teams, though some of that mediocrity was surely due to time and score, which often forced the Vols to throw it late in games in attempt to score many points quickly.
Still, Stone was quick to note: “I think we’ve made the most improvement in run-blocking mechanics. We need a more balanced attack. We’ve got some good running backs and we want to get them some running room.”
The 291-pound Nashville native is the only starter among the five who weighs less than 300 pounds, crediting his slimmer build to the Vols’ summer conditioning program and his own will power to avoid two of his favorite foods — pepperoni pizza with extra cheese and strawberry milkshakes.
Recalling the infamous running drill where the Vols ran 52 110-yard sprints one night this summer, Stone said of strength and conditioning coach Dave Lawson’s pre-workout warning: “He advised us to drink lots of water beforehand. If Coach Lawson advises you to drink lots of water, you know something big is coming up.”
Ignore the failures of recent years and you would swear this is going to be a very big year for the Vols. Eleven senior starters are listed on the preseason depth chart, and that doesn’t include kicker Michael Palardy. Add seven juniors to that mix and 18 of the 22 position players are upperclassmen. Beyond that, nine more juniors and seniors currently hold second-team status.
And nowhere is that experience more pronounced than the O-line, where Richardson is a junior almost certain to declare for the NFL and Bullard, Fulton, James and Stone are all seniors.
“Oldest unit on the team,” Stone said.
The oldest and the best, which caused a sports writer to ask if the unit didn’t need a nickname.
“We call ourselves the OLP,” said Stone. “O-line Pride.”
Defensive lineman Corey Miller goes further.
“Where we go, how many games we win,” he said, “is going to start with them.”
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...