Tennessee Vols' offensive line challenged by Don Mahoney

photo Ja'Wuan James

KNOXVILLE - Offensive linemen are inherently loyal.

It typically comes with the territory of the position, where you're only as good as the four other guys in the unit.

So in December when Don Mahoney took over a Tennessee offensive line with talent and experience coming off a 2012 season that included a big increase in rushing yards and only eight sacks all season, he needed to make a good initial impression.

Naturally he told the Volunteers' big men that last season simply wasn't good enough.

"It boils down to this: winning football games," Mahoney said after the Vols' sixth spring practice Thursday morning. "It's not about what was done statistically, and that's what drives me nuts, especially as offensive line, [where] there's only one stat that matters, and that's winning. The bottom line is this: It's about winning, and we are a position in which that's it.

"It doesn't matter how many yards, sacks, this, that and the other. At the end of the day let's go and win ballgames, period. That point, and from their maturity level and their understanding, they get it. They understand, 'You know what? That's right.'"

The senior-laden group, which includes a likely first-round NFL draft pick next year in left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, is a tight-knit bunch, built upon a foundation of OLP -- "O-line Pride" -- dating back to 2010. The front five thrived last season under Sam Pittman and wanted to see him remain through the Vols' coaching transition. New head coach Butch Jones, though, brought along Mahoney, his offensive line coach the past six seasons at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

If it sounds intimidating to step into a room of strong 300-pound football players and get them to buy what you're selling, it's probably because it is.

"I feel like it can be," senior right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "But you know, we decided, especially with me, Zach [Fulton], James [Stone] and [Alex] Bullard, this being our last time, we wanted to just completely buy in and bring along the young guys, too, and make them buy in. That's the only way we'll be the best that we can."

That's Mahoney's goal with his unit.

"He's been a real positive coach, and he's been showing how enthusiastic he is about the game and his passion for the game and his passion for this position," Stone said. "Coach Mahoney challenges us every day to just step it up, step up the intensity and step up our play whether we're coming out here on the field and practicing or whether we're going in the weight room. He always challenges us every day to go out there and get yourself better than the day before."

Mahoney acknowledged that he first had to begin developing trust and establishing a comfort level with his players. He said he takes pride in his relationship with his players, and though his initial message to the Vols included a challenge, it also included emphasizing the trust between him and his players.

Though James said the seniors were open to embracing whoever was their new position coach, he added that Mahoney has made the transition easier with the simple approach of engaging his players off the field.

"Just talking about school, talking about life, having us in his office and stuff," he explained. "He's a good guy. You can tell it's genuine off the field, and that's the type of coach we want to play for, and all these coaches are like this."

When he's coaching the linemen on the practice field or in the meeting room, the 44-year-old Mahoney is energetic and vocal.

"He's a pretty up-tempo guy," Stone said. "He's always up and he's always pointing something out, giving you some little note or some tip you can write down and remind us. He's always breaking it down trying to get it everything cleared up before we do get out here on the field.

"He's his own coach. He's using his own coaching mentality and he's really working hard to foster trust with us. That's something we all really respect with him, that he's showing that he wants to foster a bond of trust between us and him. That's something you really need working on a unit like this where you need five guys working cohesively."

These linemen always have been hard workers, and they've responded to Mahoney's challenge of building on last year's performance. James noted that the Vols let some games slip away in the fourth quarter. Stone felt the line neglected some details, which led to flaws.

There's also a new power spread offense, and the fast tempo from last season has been kicked up a notch or two.

"There's no complacency," Fulton said, "because there's a whole new offense, so we've still got to learn and we're still taking those baby steps in the offense. We've got a lot to learn ourselves, so we're not really complacent. We're just eager to learn more and more of the offense."

When he arrived in Knoxville in December, Mahoney began calling the parents of his players and met some of them after last Saturday's scrimmage, and though he likes his unit's talent and experience, he's enjoyed their makeup and work ethic, too.

"Trust is built over time," Mahoney said, "and I feel like over that time period, from the time we got here to now, they're figuring me out that 'You know what, I can trust this guy because of these reasons that he has showed me,' and more importantly [what] they have showed me as well.

"It's a two-way street. I say that out of confidence because I believe in my coaching style, and I think that they've embraced that. Being a guy they know they can trust, I think that's being built and it's pretty powerful."