KNOXVILLE - James Stone is ahead of the curve.
In the University of Tennessee's quest to add flexibility to its offensive line by teaching players more than one position, the 6-foot-3, 308-pound sophomore constantly draws praise from his teammates for his intelligence. Stone's ability to play both center and guard, where he started a combined eight games last season, come as much from his smarts on and off the football field and extra study time as it does his natural physical talent.
"It's something [offensive line] coach [Harry] Hiestand pressed on me to learn more and try to be able to be a better center and be a better offensive lineman in general to be able to learn defenses and study defenses and just become a student of the game," Stone said after Wednesday afternoon's practice, the Volunteers' second of preseason camp.
"I started in the spring, and when we got into summer I had more free time so I really [cracked] down on that. Me and [Alex] Bullard, we got together a lot to study film. I don't know if I can put an actual number on it. I put quite a bit of time into it. In between school, when everybody can get a hour or two, I like to get in there and pop some film in."
Stone may have some competition now, though, for the title of the Vols' most versatile lineman with the spring addition of Bullard, the 6-2, 309-pound former four-star prospect who walked on at UT in January after two seasons at Notre Dame. Bullard began spring working at center before moving out to a first-team spot at right tackle when mononucleosis ended Ja'Wuan James' spring.
That flexibility creates some options for the Vols, who could barely field an entire second-team offensive line most of last season. The experimentation already has begun and figures to continue through all of fall camp.
"We're rolling a bunch of guys up front, trying to figure out who our best five are and our best combination," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "We're playing James and Alex at center, James at guard, moving Alex around. He's really got an ability to play everything. We're still in the experimental stages, doing the same thing with the freshmen, and each day you try to start settling in."
Dooley said Monday that the goal was to have a sixth and seventh best lineman to plug in if a starter went down as opposed to having a backup at each spot. Unlike his desired rotation of 6-8 players on the defensive line, however, Dooley prefers more continuity up front offensively despite the increased difficulty of learning multiple spots, a process that began in the spring.
"They're all hard in their own way, but I think it's fair to say there's a lot of complexity up front," he said. "It just depends on what two they are: a center should know what the guards are doing so it shouldn't be that hard, [and] the guards should know what the tackles are doing. It'd be very difficult to try to play all five.
"It doesnt hurt to have a good seven where you can throw a guy in for 15-20 snaps to spell somebody. The continuity on the offensive line is a lot more important than it is anywhere else because they have to work together with the calls and they block together. You don't want to trade them too much."
What's too much for some linemen, though, might not be too much for Stone, who received the prestigious William Hume Award as metro Nashville's top scholar-athlete at Nashville's Maplewood High School.
"He's smart, even though sometimes he doesn't show it," right guard Zach Fulton said. "We'll be in the meeting room sometimes and coach Hiestand will ask a question, and I'll probably be completely lost about it, but he'll know the answer. I appreciate that about him. He knows a lot on the field and off the field."
Said Stone: "I feel like I'm more comfortable and more knowledgeable with what I'm doing. I'm more comfortable sitting and making calls and being able to play different positions on the line."
Mixed results for newcomers
UT's anticipated and touted class of new players got their first taste of college football on Tuesday night, and the workout drew mixed results from Dooley.
"I saw a lot of good-looking players," he said. "Height, weight, speed, athleticism -- just what I'd anticipated and why we signed them. I saw a good work ethic, but I also saw a real bunch of young guys whose heads were spinning with all the stuff we were throwing at them. They were really fatigued and they weren't even in the heat. They're still freshmen."