KNOXVILLE — Don Mahoney undoubtedly knows he's inheriting a nice situation.
His intent is to make it even nicer.
Tennessee's new offensive line coach is taking over a unit that returns 123 combined career starts and loses just one player from a solid group that improved as run blockers and allowed only eight sacks in 2012, but Mahoney wants more from his linemen.
"They've been through a lot together, and they're willing to embrace this change," he said. "We've got to develop depth. We've got to have some guys step up and play at even a higher level than they did last year, and that's one of the challenges I'm going to present to them.
"I'm hearing positive things. We haven't really sunk into the film yet, but let's step the game up even more. I know that they're going to take off running with that."
In an offense that will be transitioning to a new system with a new quarterback and new receivers, the Volunteers' line will feature Ja'Wuan James and Zach Fulton, who passed on chances to leave for the NFL draft, and Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, the left tackle who could be a high draft pick in 2014.
"That's going to be the strength of our football team," new head coach Butch Jones said, "but I'm excited because those are all very, very important parts obviously, but also from a leadership standpoint, from the character aspect that they bring as well."
The Vols' line flourished this season under Sam Pittman, who was loved and respected by his players. Mahoney, 43, wants to build a similar bond with his players. In limited time before many Vols left campus for their hometowns for the holiday break, he met with them one-on-one and noted the eye contact and urgency and excitement as positives.
He's even taken an extra step and tried to learn more about his linemen.
"I'm reaching out to the parents, calling them, introducing myself," Mahoney said. "You'd be surprised what we find out from the parents. 'Hey, did you know so-and-so, he gets motivated this way, that way.'
"I know this: We've got to keep building this relationship. As I've told them, each one of them, there's something different about each one of them. I've got to get the right buttons pushed to get them to play at their best."
Tennessee could lose five linemen after the 2013 season if Richardson elects to leave early. The Vols regularly used seven this season, while three redshirt freshmen were behind that rotation.
Jones emphasizes numbers in building his roster. He wants a certain number of players at each position. For example, the coach's requirements are 15 offensive linemen and 12 receivers, and the Vols are well short of the preferred number at wideout.
"Managing and running a football team's like running a business," Jones explained. "You have X amount of players at each position in your formula building your football team. Each position, we want a certain number of guys at that position for depth and for development purposes and the ability to win.
"We found in the world of college football you're only as good as the next guy in."
With the Friday flip to the Vols of former Cincinnati commitment Dylan Wiesman, a three-star prospect from Cincinnati's Colerain High School, Tennessee has three solid offensive linemen committed for the 2013 signing class after not getting any in 2012.
Regardless of how many linemen Mahoney coaches in his first season, he'll have to teach them a new style. Jones' spread offense uses more of a zone-blocking scheme, which will be an adjustment from the previous coaching staff for the players. Yet for many Vols, Mahoney will be their third position coach, and he said he's willing to adjust some things schematically for them.
"I told them, 'Guys, I'm willing to [do] what's best for us,'" Mahoney said. "If I even tweak some things that makes more sense for them. I'm not about to create confusion. I told them I'd be foolish to do that.
"Quite frankly, after so many years, you sometimes as a coach you don't want to keep staying the same. I want to make what's best for them as far as the learning part. As Coach Jones always says, we never want our minds to tie up our feet. We certainly don't want to do that up front with how physical we want to play. Whatever's best for them, that's what I want to do."
Mahoney wants to make their best even better.
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 ...