KNOXVILLE - The University of Tennessee has had its starting offensive line locked in for nearly three weeks now, and that's given the Volunteers time to develop continuity and chemistry.
As with seemingly every other area on the team, though, it's a work in progress, but line coach Harry Hiestand said after Wednesday morning's practice that the Vols had made considerable progress in the last week.
"It's always a benefit to the players to play with each other, and playing next to one another's really important," Hiestand said. "We're kind of settled in on that and at that point now."
The final piece to the puzzle was sophomore Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard, who found his home at left guard after UT's first camp scrimmage. Bullard has been locked in since with left tackle Dallas Thomas, center James Stone, right guard Zach Fulton and right tackle Ja'Wuan James -- all returning starters from last season. While it will be an adjustment with a different defense lining up on the other side of the line of scrimmage against Montana on Saturday, the five have had plenty of time to work on its communication.
"We were pretty good in communicating when it comes to our defense, and the new game plan, Montana does things a lot differently," Bullard said Tuesday. "That's just learning the game plan. We do a good job communicating. Coach Hiestand, that's one thing that he stresses is communication, because if four guys are on the same page and one guy isn't, it screws up the whole thing. It's extremely important."
It was even more important, perhaps, that UT quickly determine the fifth lineman to complete the group. Freshman Marcus Jackson and redshirt sophomore JerQuari Schofield, who's also worked at tackle, entered camp bracketed as starters at left guard, and they likely are the Vols' next options if a starter goes down. Bullard worked at all three line spots when he arrived, but once he settled in at left guard, so did the Vols.
"It took us a little time," Hiestand said. "We weren't able to do it right away. When you don't have a lot of depth, you don't have a lot of choices. We know [Bullard's] a football player, and the longer he plays at this spot, the better he'll be. Sure, you'd love to be able to say, 'OK, we've got these five guys,' but it wasn't the way we did it and wasn't the way we were able to do it."
Flipping a nickel
With the dismissal of Janzen Jackson last week, UT might have lost its every-down nickel back in addition to its star free safety. The Vols continue to shuffle players at different spots in the secondary, and with spread offenses at Montana and Cincinnati ahead in the first two games, the shuffle spreads to UT's fifth defensive back.
"[Instead] of us having the solid guy you want to play every play at nickel, we'll probably be more of a rotation," secondary coach Terry Joseph said. "We've got a few different options we can do, and we've got a few options at free safety. These first two games really [allow] us to get a good feel with who we want to do with."
In last week's mock game, Eric Gordon was the first-team nickel back, but the Vols used a different look during the open period of Wednesday morning's practice with Prentiss Waggner as the extra back and freshman Brian Randolph at free safety. Junior college transfers Izauea Lanier and Byron Moore also figure into the shuffle. How the Vols will play it won't be known until Saturday.
"Brian's a smart guy," Joseph said. "[He] came in in great shape mentally ready to go, so he's going to play, he's going to play significantly and we expect him to do a good job."
This and that
Special teams coordinator Eric Russell called it a "game-time decision" on whether the Vols would go with senior receiver Anthony Anderson or freshman tailback Marlin Lane at punt returner Saturday. ... Coach Derek Dooley dished out more praise for freshman outside linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson, noting their "steady demeanor" and "professional way." ... Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said he expects Montana to use mostly a "base zone coverage and go play" defensively. ... Receiver Justin Hunter wore a red noncontact jersey Wednesday, and cornerback-turned-receiver Naz Oliver didn't practice. ... The Vols implemented crowd noise for the first time Wednesday, which Dooley said created some "chaos" and led to a handful of mistakes.