KNOXVILLE-With their size, Zach Fulton and James Stone aren't hard to miss, but for two-thirds of the freshman trio who started on Tennessee's offensive line the latter half of last season, this spring practice is about continuing to build on the promise they showed.
"A lot of times last year when I was watching film, I caught myself and I was just awkward," Stone said after the Volunteers practiced in pads for the first time Thursday. "I just want to get more sound in my fundamentals."
"We've just got to keep getting better ourselves, really," said the 6-foot-5, 334-pound Fulton. "We're not perfect or anything, so we can always get better like that. Three of us starting on the offensive line last year, I guess we weren't really that strong. We weren't where we needed to be physicalness wise, but we're trying to get where we need to be."
Fulton played in 11 games last season at guard, including five starts. He's increased his strength and speed through offseason workouts, as coach Derek Dooley challenged the young linemen to do.
It's a little more complicated for Stone, though. The intelligent 6-3, 307-pound center is learning to snap right-handed with a more traditional grip this spring. After a midseason move to guard, Stone started UT's last four games snapping the ball with his natural left hand on the nose of the football. It's a change Stone knew had to happen, though it couldn't be done midseason.
"I'm just trying to use my right more doing everyday things," he said. "Eating, picking up stuff, just everyday things. If I go somewhere I might try to dribble a basketball in my right hand. Just a lot of stuff like that just to get more acclimated with it."
Fulton, Stone and fellow rising sophomore Ja'Wuan James also are helping teach guard Marcus Jackson, who enrolled for the spring semester.
"He's pretty good. I like him," Fulton said. "I try to teach him everything I know [about the position]. It was really helpful for incoming freshmen, so he's going to benefit from practicing in the spring and getting better for the season."
Not really alone
Mychal Rivera is the only tight end on UT's roster with returning experience from a season ago, but that doesn't mean he's relaxing this spring.
"I'm being pushed every day. All those guys are pushing me hard every day," Rivera said of Auburn transfer Brent Slusher, early enrollee Brendan Downs and converted fullback Ben Bartholomew. "I know in the game of football nothing's safe. I'm out there trying to push myself as hard as I can every day to be the best tight end I can be."
Gone is Luke Stocker, who was a vital part of the Vols offense last season and a helping hand for Rivera in his first season at UT after transferring from Oregon via junior college. The 6-3, 262-pound rising junior said he's focused on improving his blocking this spring.
"Luke's a real good friend of mine," he said. "He taught he a lot when he was here. There's some times when I get in my stance and I think of what Luke told me to take my steps. He's a little bigger than me, but I feel like I have similar route-running ability and catching ability."
UT will have a new full-time place-kicker (Michael Palardy) and punter (Matt Darr) this season, but the Vols haven't stressed work on kickoffs and field goals through three days of spring practice.
"We haven't gone full-throttle yet," Dooley said. "But we've got two young, talented specialists. They're like the rest of the guys - can they become dependable, every-down players for us?"