KNOXVILLE - An offseason and preseason of praise for Tennessee's talented veteran offensive line goes out the window when the ball is snapped on Saturday night.
When the Volunteers open the season, it's time for the team's best unit to deliver on expectations and accomplish its collective goal of being Tennessee's leaders.
"Everywhere I've been, the O-line has usually been the core and the mentality of your team," Vols offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said following Wednesday's practice. "When we preach a mentality of physicality and toughness and all those things, it definitely starts up front with the offensive line. Having a veteran group, they know the expectations and they've been able to preach that to the other guys."
Though the Vols' starting five linemen have combined to start 120 career games, the opener against Austin Peay still will be the group's first time in a new offense. There's a new quarterback to protect, a new scheme and a new system.
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney wants no "freelancing" when he watches the game film on Sunday.
"We're not going to leave any stone unturned," he said. "We're going to cover it all from A to Z, and that's what we did during this week, even tomorrow and Friday. I made sure the point was known, and I trust in that getting done, but again it's a process of trust development on both sides.
"There's no just doing your own thing; we're all in this thing doing it the right way the way we expect them to do."
And the expectation is playing physically.
"The point's been known," Mahoney said, "and made to them throughout this spring and this fall camp of exactly what's gone on in the past and exactly what we need to do to take the next step in the right direction as an offense and the overall mentality of what we do and what we want to do offensively.
All hands on deck
To receivers coach Zach Azzanni, there is no depth chart, and though he'd like to lock down a rotation of nine wideouts, there's not one of those, either.
Pig Howard, who head coach Butch Jones said Wednesday is performing "exceptionally well right now," and freshman Marquez North have been entrenched with the first-team offense, with freshman Josh Smith and redshirt freshman Jason Croom rotating the third wideout spot. Devrin Young figures to have a role in the offense, and Johnathon Johnson also could get some snaps in the slot. Cody Blanc, Jacob Carter and Vincent Dallas also still appear to be in the mix.
"They've all got to play," Azzanni said. "The game might be different. You might see some things in game-time situations that make you kind of open your eyes a little bit. The grind of camp gets everybody a little bit in this first week, and maybe when it's fresh and new, and we get out there and you start seeing those habits kind of come out, maybe there will be a top six.
"But right now, they're all going to go, they're all going to travel and quite frankly I'm not sure they can make it through a game yet at our pace, which is why we need all of them to play."
Jalen Hurd, the Vols' five-star running back commitment for the 2014 class, will undergo surgery soon to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder and miss the remainder of his senior season. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder suffered the injury in Beech High School's 42-39 win against Station Camp on Sunday in a game televised on ESPN2.
Hurd is scheduled to enroll at Tennessee in January, though from the Vols' perspective, the injury probably isn't the worst news since it will remove a season of wear and tear on the prized recruit before his arrival.
"I'm heartbroken it happened," he told the Tennessean. "But I have to look forward, get it fixed and healed, go up to UT and do the best I can."
Last season's Class AAA Mr. Football winner ran for 177 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries and intercepted a pass on Sunday. He committed to the Vols in March after rushing for a state-record 3,357 yards and scoring 43 touchdowns last season, including seven in a 395-yard performance in Beech's Class 5A championship game win.
Azzanni said freshman Ryan Jenkins, who's missed the last week or so of practice, is "a way's away" from being able to contribute. ... Defensive coordinator John Jancek named Jordan Williams, Corey Miller and freshman Jaylen Miller as his three best healthy pass rushers with defensive ends Jacques Smith and Corey Vereen and linebacker Curt Maggitt either out or slowed by injury. ... Tight ends coach Mark Elder said Woody Quinn and Joseph Ayres are the next two tight ends in line behind Brendan Downs, with freshman A.J. Branisel "coming along."