KNOXVILLE - Amid all the flashier NFL-caliber talent on Tennessee's offense, there's Dallas Thomas, quietly going about his business.
Among all the playmaking skill-positions players and the two bookend tackles grabbing a share of attention, there's the Volunteers' fifth-year senior plugging away at left guard.
"I'm just going with the flow," Thomas called it earlier this week.
It's easy to overlook him -- unless you're an NFL scout.
The postseason decisions of quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to stick around for their senior seasons or bolt for the NFL have been talking points throughout the season. Offensive tackles typically get more attention, especially in a passing offense like Tennessee's. Ja'Wuan James and Antonio "Tiny" Richardson's performances against some of the Southeastern Conference's best pass rushers have confirmed that notion.
Yet ESPN analyst Todd McShay puts Thomas 19th overall and third among offensive linemen in his 2013 draft-eligible player rankings, CBS rates Thomas 41st overall and sixth among linemen and WalterFootball.com's latest mock draft has Thomas going at pick No. 36.
"He's not overlooked internally," Tennessee offensive line coach Sam Pittman said. "Let's face the facts: Everybody likes to talk about your tackles, because if you don't have them, you just can't function. Of course, Ja'Wuan and Tiny were both highly recruited kids, where Dallas I don't think was quite as highly recruited as those guys.
"You've got Zach [Fulton] and him and James [Stone], and all them guys are pretty good players. They really are, but the tackles usually get the most press because they're wider to the edge and people can see them easier. The guards are usually your grunt guys, but as far as playing ability and all that, probably all of them are similar to the same amount of talent."
The 6-foot-5, 310-pound Thomas has an easy-go-lucky attitude in interviews and admits he tries not to think about his future. Yet it's hard to escape. The Vols have an open-door policy with NFL scouts, and Thomas said he was asked about his projection status by fans for whom he was signing autographs last Saturday.
"I thought about it," he said, "but it's not a priority right now."
After Thomas started every game at left tackle in 2010 and '11, the Vols approached him about switching to left guard to make room for Richardson, the big sophomore. It helped Tennessee get its best five linemen on the field, and the results have shown. The Vols are much improved in the run game and one of the best pass-protecting offensive lines nationally with just four sacks allowed on 334 Bray passes.
"We said, 'Hey, move to guard,'" coach Derek Dooley said. "What a great team player. I think he likes guard a little better.
"He doesn't like it when Antonio's out, but to his credit he moves over and plays. He's another one of those guys who just stayed the course. He's got a lot of years ahead of him."
The move has given Thomas a versatility that has opened more doors for him.
"From talking to the guys, from the scouts and all that, it's helped him tremendously," Pittman said. "Not only the fact that everybody that we're talking to is projecting him at guard, but the fact that he has now, people can see two years at tackle, they can see a year at guard. They all like him at guard, and 'Well, if he doesn't work out, we can put him at tackle.'
"That really has helped his draftability."
Dooley was quick to point to Thomas' own efforts.
"I think it gives people another evaluation of him," he said. "But what helped him more than anything is how he's worked at it and how he's performed. The move to guard wouldn't have meant anything if Dallas didn't have the level of commitment that he showed to being good."
A three-star prospect out of Louisiana, Thomas' only contributions before Dooley's arrival were on field-goal protection units in 2009. He essentially was the Vols' lone option at left tackle in 2010 and held the job last season when some expected Richardson to supplant him. Instead Richardson cited Thomas as a valuable example to watch and learn from for a full season.
"He's so athletic, he's a long, big-bodied guy and he's a smart football player," Pittman said. "With all those things, I think that's probably what these guys have seen in here. These guys that come in from the [NFL], they're pretty high on him, as they should be.
"I've had a lot of different guys, and he's probably less concerned about it as anyone I've coached. Now he's concerned, I'm sure -- he'd like to know where he's going -- but the bottom line I tell all the guys is that tape that they send that the NFL people watch, no matter what agent you have, it doesn't matter what this, what that -- the tape's going to to be the thing that gets you drafted or it's not."
With his college career drawing closer to its end, Thomas' tape seems likely to get him drafted highly come April, but he's not obsessed with that.
"You never know what you're going to get in each season," he said. "Each season's different, so I just go with the flow. I know things haven't [been] going our way, but things can only get better."