KNOXVILLE — In the blink of an eye, big Coleman Thomas went from the center of the offense to the center of the spotlight.
The reason was simple: Tennessee badly needed him to make the move.
The 6-foot-6, 315-pound freshman played center exclusively throughout his career at Fort Chiswell High School in Virginia, but the Volunteers plugged him in right tackle, where he's been a first-teamer since the first practice of spring.
"I'm going to take anything they tell me to do," Thomas said after Tennessee's practice Thursday afternoon. "If they tell me to stand on my head, I'm going to try and do it just to try. I pride myself on being athletic."
A good tackle has to be athletic, and the Vols believe Thomas, who had early scholarship offers from Virginia Tech and Virginia and a later offer from Florida State, has that ability.
The second commitment of Tennessee's touted 2014 class can dunk a basketball and earned all-county honors on the hardwood while also pitching and playing first base for Fort Chiswell's baseball team.
Out of options, the Vols told him late during his senior season he'd be playing tackle in college.
"Coleman is very athletic, and he's benefited from having a spring football under his belt," second-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "The overall consistency, the strength levels that's needed to play in the offensive line, he's really worked on that. He's very, very athletic, and he has good toughness."
Out on the island that is offensive tackle, particularly in the Southeastern Conference, Thomas will need all of those attributes.
As far as the offensive line goes, center and tackle are as different as you can get. Life is different on the edge, where you're the most exposed and probably facing the other team's best defensive lineman. It's a tall order, particularly for a freshman.
"At first it was a little different for him, a little faster going against the D-ends and stuff," right guard Kyler Kerbyson said. "He's still working on it today, still working on his technique to be perfect. No one is ever content with what they're doing. They want to be better."
Four years ago, Ja'Wuan James was in Thomas's shoes. A freshman early enrollee, James was plugged into the right tackle spot essentially from the moment he stepped on campus. He proceeded to start every game of his four-year career and played well enough as a senior to convince the Miami Dolphins to use the 19th pick of the draft on him.
Thomas is the heir apparent, and while he admitted it was "overwhelming" that Tennessee's staff gave him a chance to start right off the bat, the Vols had little in the way of options at both tackle spots.
That's why Thomas will start on the right side and either a former walk-on (Jacob Gilliam) or a junior college transfer (Dontavius Blair) will man the quarterback's blind side.
"I wouldn't say surprised," he said. "I'm extremely blessed. I just trusted in that and trusted in my hard work, and I knew it would all pay off at some point."
Thomas called spring football a "culture shock," going from high school to big-time college football so quickly.
Yet he felt he made some significant gains over the summer. He arrived at 290 pounds and now weighs 315. The three older players to his left -- Kerbyson, center Mack Crowder and left guard Marcus Jackson -- helped him learn the system.
"He's been calm with it," Kerbyson said. "When he first came in, he was a little frustrated not knowing what he needed to know. Playing right next to him, I've really helped him out, and he's starting to come into his own and started to be more confident, which really helps him out on the field."
In practices dating back to the spring, Thomas has had his ups and downs. On some plays, he'll stymie Corey Vereen and Curt Maggitt, Tennessee's two best defensive ends. Thursday, both Vereen and freshman Joe Henderson beat him in one-on-one drills.
Such ups and downs are common for freshman linemen, whether they're at center or tackle.
"I've just been working hard and trusting that the coaches are going to put the right guys on the field in order to help us win," Thomas said. "I've just trusted in my coaching. Hopefully it'll all pay off."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...