Vols OL Thomas ready to rebound from freshman struggles

Tennessee offensive lineman Coleman Thomas played center in high school, but he started five games at right tackle last year during his freshman season in Knoxville, and he seems to be the likely starter at that position heading into the Sept. 5 season opener against Bowling Green in Nashville.

KNOXVILLE - Coleman Thomas thought he was heading back home, back to the position he'd always played.

Instead, it looks like the Tennessee offensive lineman will be reacquainted with an old nemesis.

The sophomore has no preference. He just wants a chance at redemption - the opportunity to show he's a better player and banish the bitter memories from his freshman season.

"It was definitely an eye-opening experience," Thomas said of his first season with the Volunteers.

That's what happens when you go from playing center for your high school team in Virginia to starting at right tackle in big-time college football against the likes of Dante Fowler and Eric Striker.

Tennessee didn't plan to ask Thomas to start five games at right tackle last season, but a lack of depth and an early-season injury to starting left tackle Jacob Gilliam forced the Vols to throw Thomas out there - he made his first start at Oklahoma, the third game of the season - and hope for the best.

It didn't go well. Thomas struggled with the speed of the defensive ends he faced, and he had to deal with negative criticism from fans on Twitter. He suffered an ankle injury early in the loss at Ole Miss on Oct. 18 and didn't start again for the rest of the season.

"It was definitely a challenge," Thomas said. "I'd never been hurt up to that point. Just listening to the older guys, Kyler (Kerbyson) and Mack (Crowder) and Marcus (Jackson), they've all been through ups and downs. I knew to listen to them and see what they had to say, and that would get me through it."

It was a tough year overall for Tennessee's offensive line, but no one had it worse than Thomas.

"We really had to help him," left tackle Kerbyson said. "The Ole Miss game, he was really hurt. He didn't want to give that up. He didn't want to say, 'I can't go.' He actually got hurt like the second play and played through it, because of just his pride that he has, which is great to see out of a guy.

"I kind of felt like an older brother to him in trying to help him out and being able to control his emotions. A lot of the stuff with his injury, with him not playing so well his first game and people coming at him on Twitter and stuff and him getting really caught up in it, I'm just trying to calm him down like, 'You've got to relax and you can't let your emotions get to you.'"

Looking back, Thomas said he's thankful for the opportunity he had last season.

He also insists he's a much-improved player who's ready to bounce back.

"It's definitely different," he said. "I have experience, and I'm very confident right now. Talking about playing center, it helped me understand the scheme and gist of our offense better at tackle. I've just been focusing on getting better every day and really focusing on my details."

At one point this offseason it looked like Thomas was going back to center to push incumbent Mack Crowder for the starting job. But a preseason injury to Jackson forced Tennessee to reshuffle its pieces up front. Brett Kendrick, who'd been playing right tackle, moved inside to guard; Thomas wound up back at tackle.

The Vols may shuffle their front five again before the season opener, but it seems more and more likely Thomas will be Tennessee's starting right tackle.

"He obviously went through some growing pains last year and has learned from those and is working to clean up the technical things with pass sets, with the run game and all those," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "He's playing a lot faster knowing the speed of the game and the mental part of the game. "There's been progress made from him this week playing out at that position, but he could be a definite impact player inside as well.

"We still have some work to do leading up to our first ballgame on where some guys could actually be settled in at."

Asked where he would go if he could take his pick of sticking at center or rolling out to right tackle, Thomas was non-committal.

There's the familiarity of center, but going back to tackle offers him a shot at reclamation.

"He's definitely better than he was last year," Kerbyson said. "He's not so wide-eyed as he was. Going into the Oklahoma week, (he was like) a deer in headlights like, 'Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?' Now it's, 'I've been here before, I've done this before, I've just got to get my technique down and my footwork down and my hands, and I'll be all right.'

"He's really starting to concentrate on the little things now instead of, 'Oh my gosh, I have to block this guy in front of me.' That whole year under his belt has really helped him."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.