KNOXVILLE — When Don Mahoney became Tennessee's third offensive line coach in three years two winters ago, one of the first tasks he faced was getting a quartet of seniors and an NFL-minded junior to adopt his coaching methods.
On one hand, it was a luxury for the former Marshall offensive lineman, who inherited a talented, experienced group, one with four players currently on NFL rosters.
On the other hand, though, it probably felt like a forced relationship for both coach and player.
A year later, Mahoney is coaching the least-experienced offensive line in the nation, but the dynamic heading into Sunday night's season opener against Utah State seems to be better.
"I know this group a lot better just because of time," he said this month. "Getting here at the time that we did when we first got hired, and going through spring ball, the summer, then the fall was right upon us, everything goes so fast in the season.
"That's the part of coaching you really enjoy, is building the relationships and building trust and building the continuity as a unit and them really knowing you, your style of coaching and who you are.
"I think just over time I've gotten to know more about their personalities, obviously more about them as people and their family backgrounds and what buttons to push and how to motivate them each and every day."
The trio of center Mack Crowder, left guard Marcus Jackson and right tackle Kyler Kerbyson came to Tennessee in 2011 when Harry Hiestand, who left after that season for Notre Dame and still coaches with the Irish, was the offensive line coach. Fifth-year senior former walk-on Jacob Gilliam, likely Tennessee's starter at left tackle, spent two years under Hiestand.
In 2012, Sam Pittman, now at Arkansas, joined Derek Dooley's staff and wasn't retained when new coach Butch Jones brought Mahoney, his offensive line coach the previous six years at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
The perceived strength of Tennessee's team last season was its experienced offensive line, but like just about every unit in a program recently smothered by constant coaching instability and turnover, those players were dealing with a third position coach in as many years.
"Maybe Coach Mo feels, 'Hey, I really can get with these guys,'" Kerbyson said of Tennessee's new-look line. "The other guys were a little older, so it seemed hard for them, and I know, because I went through it with them. They're only a grade over me, and they went through three different coaches.
"But they bought in as much as they could. Those were really great guys to be behind. I think it helps Coach Mo to have young guys, so he can connect with them really, really well."
Most of Tennessee's new starting unit fo 2013 signees Dylan Wiesman, Austin Sanders and Brett Kendrick are entering their second season under Mahoney. Freshman phenom Jashon Robertson, who went from defensive tackle to starter at right guard in about two weeks this month, is the exception.
Newcomers Coleman Thomas, Dontavius Blair and Ray Raulerson have been in the program since January and went through spring practice with him.
"It is one thing to learn the offense," Mahoney said, "but it's also to learn the coach's expectations, to learn the system, to learn the demands and to learn, really, our temperament. [It's] knowing, 'Hey, Coach is not happy about something,' and it's really by pure body language. I think that that part is moving a lot faster as far as the learning."
Of course, Tennessee's older players welcomed some continuity.
"It's huge," Kerbyson said. "The past three years, for me, two offensive coordinators and three O-line coaches. It makes a huge difference. Every coach teaches different. It's really nice to have a whole year with Coach Mahoney.
"I really understand him, and we have a great relationship, and so do all the other O-linemen."
Before too long, Mahoney may well wish he had the likes of Ja'Wuan James, a first-round pick of the Miami Dolphins, and Zach Fulton, who's gone from sixth-round pick to potential starter in Kansas City, back at Tennessee.
That underappreciated group recorded Tennessee's best rushing season (2,261 yards) since 2004 and just the program's fifth season of 2,000 rushing yards since 1997 with no home-run threats in the backfield and a forgettable passing game.
It's clear, though, how Mahoney views the two situations.
"It is different," he said, "and it's one that I'm enjoying more and more, because it's something that as a coach, you teach on the board, you teach in the classroom and you go out on the field, but you've got to find other things.
"Coach Jones, being with him this time for the number of years that myself and Coach Jake [offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian] have, that for him that's one of his biggest strengths, is getting the most out of players because he invests so much time in them.
"Now that we've gotten more time in these guys, it's, I think, going to pay off for us."
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 ...