KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee's Harry Hiestand speaks like a vast majority of his offensive line coaching peers -- to the point.
Asked after Tuesday's practice for his impressions of UT's line so far this spring, Hiestand offered seven simple words.
"We've got a long way to go," he said.
Asked what he saw on tape that caused some of the Volunteers' problem with shotgun snaps, Hiestand looked like he'd just been asked to calculate two plus two.
"What do you think? I saw messed-up snaps," he said. "We didn't get the ball to the quarterback. That's kind of obvious. I don't know what you want me to say. We messed up snaps."
Hiestand has seen and tried to address several issues throughout his long coaching career, but his first year with the Vols has presented a new challenge: an entirely new offensive line. Five new starters.
"I've never even heard of that," said Hiestand, a former Illinois assistant head coach who came to UT after five seasons and one Super Bowl appearance with the NFL's Chicago Bears.
But he's got just a few months to deal with it.
"The hardest thing is just that you're trying to work in a progression, but it's not fast enough," he said. "When you really lack experience, you can't skip any of those (first) steps. You get anxious, and you want to get going and get them to learn their plays and all of that. But when their stance isn't very good, you've got to work the stance out.
"The progression is slower when there's such little experience, but we can't afford to skip the fundamentals, and we're not going to skip the fundamentals. We'll just continue to build the base, and then we'll grow into this other stuff."
UT headed into spring with four first-team vacancies along the offensive front, but the Vols were supposed to have an anchor in Aaron Douglas, who was named a Freshman All-American for his play at left tackle last season.
Then Douglas left the team temporarily. Then that leave became permanent. Then the Vols had five holes.
"It's obviously not the situation we want, but it's the situation we've got," first-year head coach Derek Dooley said. "Like everybody else in the country, we'll go out there and do the best we can with what we've got. We've got some guys who could develop into good players."
But that's not an overnight process, Hiestand and Dooley admitted. The Vols have essentially ironed out one position -- Dallas Thomas at left tackle -- but the rest remain undecided. Some positions, especially center, have already been a revolving door.
Cody Pope took his turn starting last week, and aside from his snapping issues, Dooley's liked what he's seen. Former defensive lineman Victor Thomas is still getting reps, as is rising redshirt freshman Daniel Hood from Knoxville Catholic High School, but Pope drew the most Dooley praise Tuesday.
"I'm still concerned, but we're starting to see some progress from Cody Pope," Dooley said. "We've been repping Cody with the 1s. He's a guy we've moved around a lot ... and I think we might have found a home at center for him, so he and Vic will be battling it out for a while."
Pope, a 6-foot-5, 290-pound vegetarian from Southern California, came to UT as a highly touted recruit but has spent most of his career moving to various positions all over the offensive and defensive lines.
"Sometimes it feels like I come in (the complex) and it's like, 'Where am I playing today?' But it's all good," the long-haired Pope said with his surfer-dude accent. "I just want to help the team, hopefully as a guy who plays on Saturdays."
Even if Pope sticks at center, the Vols still would have to fill three spots up front.
Hiestand said the goal is to arrive in August's preseason camp with "a pretty good idea" of who will line up where. But even after finding the five best linemen, figuring out where to play them remains a tricky chore.
"That's the trick, but there's not a heck of a lot of choices right now," Hiestand said. "We've kind of had them all everywhere we could have them now, so we'll be able to go into training camp pretty much knowing where to line them up."
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