KNOXVILLE - Outside of a handful of preseason accolades and watch lists, it's been a rather quiet August for Tennessee's offensive line.
For the most part, the Volunteers' talented veteran front has plodded along and performed as you might expect.
The unit possesses the reputation of being the hardest-working group on the team, and that doesn't appear to have changed from this time last year, when the line was working to bounce back from a forgettable season, to now, when the Vols' big men have been showered with preseason praise.
"That's what we try to do all the time," right guard Zach Fulton said following Sunday afternoon's practice, "is be the hardest-working group on the field, show leaderhip and show we have a love for this game and want to lead this team."
After one practice last week, Butch Jones, who's challenged individual players and position groups in his post-practice media sessions during his first preseason as Tennessee's coach, was unhappy with the offensive line after the Vols failed to convert a short fourth down.
"I just don't blindy throw darts," Jones said Sunday.
The coach said the players have responded as he expected they would, and the unit knows the Vols need them to be even better than it was last season.
"We're just trying to win games," said left guard Alex Bullard. "We gave up very few sacks last year and we had a productive year, but at the end of the day, we went 5-7. We all have to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, 'What can we do to improve this team?'
"We can give up no sacks and we can rush for however many yards, but what matters is whether you won or lost."
Jones again was frustrated during Tennessee's punt protection period on Sunday. He chewed out backup punter Matt Darr for taking too long to get his punts off. The coach told the redshirt junior he was "about ready to send you back home" and even reminded him of the team's rule of "no bars in season."
Redshirt freshman scout team defensive back Tino Thomas blocked a punt against the Vols' second unit.
"The thing you're concerned with going into the first couple games of the season are game-speed repetitions," Jones said. "We try to go good-on-good and scout team and live situations, but the speed of the game on game day really changes, so the first couple of games, you're very concerned about the special teams part of it.
"You look at the storylines in the first few games of the season. A lot of them come down to plays on special teams, and I think a lot of that is the [lack of] game-speed repetitions, then the individuals that are starters on offense or defense playing special teams and [them] being able to play at a high level in both phases of their game."
McNeil on the move
After Byron Moore handled most of the first-team reps alongside Brian Randolph at safety last week, LaDarrell McNeil, who started seven games and earned selection to the All-SEC freshman team in 2012, has been the first-team safety the past two days.
"LaDarrell has really progressed the last couple days," Jones said. "He's had a hip pointer, he's fought through that hip point and I think he's showing some toughness. He's gaining some confidence, and I've really been encouraged by what I see with him."
Tailback Marlin Lane was held out of both Saturday's open practice and Sunday afternoon's session as a precaution. Randolph and receiver Pig Howard likewise wore green non-contact jerseys. Receivers Paul Harris, Johnathon Johnson and Ryan Jenkins and cornerback Michael Williams again did not practice.
Freshman offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman, who was shaken up late in Saturday night's practice and left Neyland Stadium limping with a bag of ice on his left knee, worked out on the side with a big brace on his left knee, and the Vols still are awaiting confirmation on the injury's severity.
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