KNOXVILLE — It's almost time for the talking to end, for the questions to be answered.
And for Tennessee, the biggest questions are in the trenches.
The Volunteers have the glaring distinction of being the only NCAA Division I football team in the country that must replace their entire offensive and defensive lines, and the players sliding into those roles get the first chance to show what they've got against Utah State on Sunday night.
"I can't wait. I've been really excited for them," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said following Thursday's practice.
"Two days ago wasn't the best practice that we needed to have, but they answered with yesterday coming out and collectively doing the things that we need to do. Therefore, their work ethic and the time they've put in over the spring and the training camp and all that, it's now time to see them play on Sunday. I'm excited for them."
Up front offensively, the Vols will start a former walk-on at left tackle (Jacob Gilliam), one player who took a voluntary redshirt last season (Marcus Jackson), a fourth-year junior making his second start (Mack Crowder), a true freshman who began training camp at defensive tackle (Jashon Robertson) and a tackle who's better at guard (Kyler Kerbyson).
The situation is more dire defensively, where Tennessee will trot out a mix of inexperienced older players and newcomers, including touted freshman ends Derek Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix.
Former end Jordan Williams, redshirt sophomore Danny O'Brien and junior college transfer Owen Williams will get most of the plays at defensive tackle, according to line coach Steve Stripling, who challenged his unit to play with a "defensive-line mentality" in Sunday's opener.
"We're not going to be perfect," he said. "We're going to make mistakes. We've got some young guys that have got to grow up, but as long as they're playing hard and playing physical and playing that defensive-line mentality, we'll be OK."
Stripling believes his smaller, quicker group is more athletic than last year's and thus "absolutely" better equipped to handle an athletic quarterback like the Aggies' Chuckie Keeton.
The coaching veteran also acknowledged that the Vols' staff must help the group that is the Vols' biggest question mark.
"It takes knowledge as a coach: Don't put them in situations that they can't be successful in," Stripling said. "We always talking about coaching for success, so put them in [good] situations. Make calls that make them successful. Don't add stress to their life, so I think for our defense, we have to be able to do that."
Replacing an entire offensive line is something Mahoney has not done previously in his coaching career, but he clearly likes his group.
Jackson is probably Tennessee's best lineman, and Gilliam has outperformed touted juco transfer Dontavius Blair throughout the preseason. Mahoney said he's "really comfortable" with the new-look line's communication thanks to Crowder's influence. Robertson, a freshman, is "ahead of the learning curve," Mahoney said.
It's entirely possible Tennessee's new line outperforms its expectations while not reaching the level of last year's group, which had two players drafted and two others still on NFL rosters.
"You had a lot of guys that had experience under their belts, so it wasn't that there was a lack of hunger, but they'd been there," Mahoney said. "These guys, there's some anxiety.
"I told them this: 'We're not going out to prove, Mack Crowder, that you're James Stone.' You're playing Mack Crowder's style of play and Tennessee's style of play, of what we want and our identity -- that's it. We want you to play at your utmost. That's what's most important, our right tackle position playing the best he can play.
"There's been years," he added, "where I've had some guys where maybe they're not as talented, but they really worked well together."
Both sets of linemen begin the season with something to prove, and Mahoney believes that can help his guys play better.
"[There's] enough that's been said that we know," he said. "We don't follow it, or at least I don't, but I can only imagine. I think it's definitely a pride factor. It's a hunger that will stay with [us]. We've got to play with passion, not emotion. Emotion runs out quick.
"We cannot be emotional for the first four plays because people have said we're not very good, we can't do this and that -- we've got to play with passion over the course of four quarters and beyond that if that were the case. I think that's what they're geared toward. They're excited. It can't get here soon enough, because we need to see what the picture looks like."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...