published Thursday, November 7th, 2013

No grades for UT Vols' offensive line after two poor performances

Tennessee offensive linesman Ja'Wuan James looks up toward the scoreboard during the second half against Missouri.
Tennessee offensive linesman Ja'Wuan James looks up toward the scoreboard during the second half against Missouri.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — It's been three weeks since a Tennessee offensive lineman received a report card.

There's simply been no need to hand one out.

Offensive linemen typically are graded on their performances on Saturdays, but the Volunteers have eschewed giving out those individual grades after a pair of disappointing performances.

"It wasn't to our standard," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said after Wednesday's practice. "It's winning and losing, and we didn't win and we didn't play well. There isn't a guy that needs to feel good about any kind of performance because we didn't get it done. To say, 'Well, we did this,' and 'We only had so many sacks,' and -- no. We lost and we didn't play well.

"It's not even a matter of flushing it away. It's a matter of a team game, and it's what we've got to do collectively as a unit. Coach [Butch] Jones has his way about doing things, I have my way about handling things and that was just a decision the last two weeks that, it's not so much I really haven't done it in the past, it's just a gut reaction thing I think is right.

"It's a team deal. It's a unit deal. It wasn't acceptable."

Tennessee and its veteran offensive front are hoping to rebound against 7th-ranked Auburn on Saturday after running for only 94 yards in a 31-3 loss to Missouri last week and finishing with 127 yards against Alabama the previous game.

Aside from a 66-yard performance against Florida in September, the Vols have registered their lowest outputs running the ball the last two weeks.

"I think they'll be the first ones to tell you we didn't play up to our standard and expectation that we have here at Tennessee," Jones, Tennessee's first-year coach, said Tuesday. "We demand a lot. We expect a lot, but that's because we have a very high standard of expectation when it comes to that position and all of our positions.

"We wanted to get our mistakes corrected and move on and focus on the next opponent and keep getting better."

This week, Jones has lobbed verbal jabs at his offensive line over the wireless microphone that's a staple of his practices.

On Tuesday, he called 6-foot-5, 323-pound right guard Zach Fulton "the biggest soft guy I've ever seen" and dubbed the front five "Club 90" after "everyone wanted to crown 'em" because Tennessee failed to crack the 100-yard mark on the ground against the Tigers.

On Wednesday, Jones joked that in a hypothetical online fan poll of "Who's softer?" between Fulton and left guard Alex Bullard, right tackle Ja'Wuan James would win via phone-in votes.

"That's just him talking on the microphone," James said Tuesday. "That's what he's going to do. It's fun. He's just trying to make us bring the competitor out of us and make us go harder. I love it. He brings energy to practice. He'll call you out if you're not doing something good, so it makes practices a lot better and brings energy to practice.

"We hear it," the senior added, "but you take the right thing from it. We're all on the same team. We all love him. He loves us. He just wants us to get better. We take the hidden message behind what he might say and just go and work."

Tennessee is averaging 181.4 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 11th in the SEC and 52nd nationally, though it's 21 more yards per game than the Vols averaged in 2012. Also, that number is buoyed by games of 315, 240 and 287 yards against Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and South Alabama.

In five SEC games, the Vols are running for 124.4 yards per game.

"If we all get a 50 percent grade but we win, I don't care," James said. "At this point we're just trying to win two games. We haven't really played our best game as an O-line, and we've got three more opportunities to go out there and put a great game together with all five of us."

James has started all 46 games of his Tennessee career, center James Stone and left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson each have started 21 straight games and Bullard and Fulton have combined for 59 more career starts.

It's a group that's played a lot of football and faced a number of talented defensive fronts this season, and Jones has taken a more direct approach in challenging a unit he challenges every week.

"It's his way of doing things, and I've been around it long enough," said Mahoney, who's in his seventh season as an assistant under Jones. "It has the effect of the players that has been in a positive way. Moving forward, I believe it will be positive, and we'll grow from it and we'll get the results we need."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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