Offensive line heads Tennessee Vols' good stuff

photo Linebacker A.J. Johnson (45) led the SEC in tackles as a sophomore. He is expected to play in the middle of the Vols' 4-3 defense in the upcoming season.
photo Tackle Ja'Wuan James remains entrenched on the right side of Tennessee's offensive line.

KNOXVILLE - There was plenty of lowlights last season for the University of Tennessee football program, and that's why there's a new coaching staff. But it's not all bad news for Butch Jones and Co. as they prepare to start spring practice. Here are three good things for the Volunteers:

1. The offensive line

It's pretty easy to spot a strength on Tennessee's offense for 2013, and it's the big guys up front. The group's credentials: four seniors, 123 combined career starts and a likely NFL first-round draft pick at left tackle.

Tackle Ja'Wuan James and guard Zach Fulton remained entrenched on the right side of the line, James Stone is locked in at center and rising junior Antonio "Tiny" Richardson is back for his second (and likely last) season at left tackle. The coaches must replace Dallas Thomas, but Marcus Jackson and Alex Bullard were nonstarters who played very regularly last season. It'll be an important spring for the Vols to develop younger players for 2014, when the line must reload.

With an impressive combination of experience and talent, Tennessee's offensive line must be an anchor for the Vols as they transition to a new coaching staff, and if the 2012 season was any indication -- Tennessee tailbacks averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry and allowed only eight sacks in Tyler Bray's 451 passes -- the front five will be up to that challenge.

2. A.J. Johnson

It went almost completely unnoticed because Tennessee's defense was the worst in the program's history, but the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Johnson led the SEC in tackles as a sophomore. His 138 stops ranked fourth in the country, and he also led the Vols in tackles for loss. In each of the final 10 games, Johnson made at least 11 tackles, including 21 against Mississippi State.

And the former high school wildcat quarterback scored six rushing touchdowns on 12 carries.

As former Vols coach Derek Dooley said, Johnson is a talented, productive player in any defensive scheme, but unlike his freshman season, when he played outside linebacker in Justin Wilcox's 4-3 defense, Johnson will play in the middle of the Vols' 4-3 defense this season. Tennessee will need him to provide leadership also. Chances are he'll lobby to keep his offensive role, too -- and he's got some impressive evidence.

3. A new defense

One of the loudest rounds of applause from Tennessee fans attending the recruiting celebration at Neyland Stadium the day after signing day wasn't for a recruit.

It was for new defensive coordinator John Jancek making a simple declaration.

"We're going to get back to playing a 4-3 defense," the former Georgia assistant said.

The Vols' experiment with the 3-4 last season under Sal Sunseri failed rather miserably. Tennessee allowed 471 yards and nearly 36 points per game, and every SEC opponent except Kentucky scored 37 or more points on the Vols. There's not many places to go but up for Jancek's first season.

Tennessee's staff certainly will emphasize that its players forget about last season's debacle and embrace the change from it. Jones wants his players sprinting to the other end of the field at the end of quarters and playing what he calls "fist-up defense," when players and fans alike raise a fist when Tennessee forces a fourth down. Where will the players' confidence level be, and how eager will they be to learn another defensive scheme?

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