KNOXVILLE - Dallas Thomas is now one lineman-sized step closer to the football.

Tennessee might be closer to finding its best five offensive linemen, too.

In the first two spring practices the fifth-year senior has shifted from left tackle to left guard, where the Volunteers started three different players last season. It also allows rising sophomore Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, a budding talent, to play the spot UT signed him for last February.

"It's really trying to find the five best linemen, then where to fit the best five," coach Derek Dooley said after practice Tuesday morning. "We know Dallas is one of our best five. He's proven it, as long as he stays that course. He's got an ability to play guard.

Both Thomas and Dooley said the move was not permanent, but it seems to be the likely end of the Vols' spring experimenting. UT has a handful of bodies along the offensive line, and much like there is during every spring or August camp, the Vols are mixing and matching their personnel. At spring's onset, Alex Bullard and Ja'Wuan James have remained at center and right tackle, respectively, and James Stone is filling in at right guard for the injured Zach Fulton (foot).

In addition to the ability, Thomas had the willingness to make the switch after starting UT's last 25 games at tackle.

"It feels good," the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder said. "It's different but I like it a lot.

"They just wanted to see if something happened to somebody, they wanted to see who could go in and play down. They chose me, so I said, 'OK, Coach.' I understood it, so I just embrace the role."

Dooley said his pitch to Thomas was twofold.

"Number one, what's best for the team," the coach said. "One of our No. 1 values is being selfless as an organization, but it's also a little selfish boost for him in a good way because I know he's got dreams of playing after college. It's a good way for teams to evaluate him as a guard. I think it's a great scenario for the team, and it's a good scenario for Dallas.

"He's a mature guy. He knows we're not jerking him around. We're going to try to put him in a spot that's going to help him and help the team."

Though Dooley joked about Thomas' quiet nature affecting his ability to communicate, the 6-foot-6, 329-pound Richardson is glad to have an experienced voice to his right.

"Sometimes I get confused out there and I'm like, 'What we doing? What we doing?'" the Nashville resident said. "He just hollers out real quick. He's able to communicate to me really fast what we're doing when I'm confused, so that's been a really good experience."

Secondary puzzle

With how the Vols will slot their personnel in the defense front seven receiving plenty of attention, their situation in the secondary is easy to overlook. Aside from safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Prentiss Waggner, the defensive backfield figures to have plenty of competition for the remaining corner, safety and nickelback spots.

"We have a lot of guys who have confidence and are used to playing," said Randolph, who was UT's fifth-leading tackler as a freshman last season. "I don't think they'll be getting nervous. That's a big advantage for us."

Dooley hesitated to go that far.

"We've got a lot of bodies, but don't confuse the word 'depth' with good," he said. "... It's going to be a real puzzle. We've got about 10 or 12 guys competing for five spots."

Complicating things are two new coaches -- Derrick Ansley for the corners and Josh Conklin for the safeties -- and a new defensive scheme.

"We've been doing a lot of film, a lot of book study, taking a lot of notes," Randolph said. "It's pretty much another class that's pretty hard."

Status updates

Dooley is full of anticipation for Thursday's practice, when the Vols will put on shoulder pads and begin working on becoming a more physical football team. "We got whipped too many times at the line of scrimmage last year," he said. ... Freshman Tino Thomas worked with the safeties during the open period of Tuesday's practice after working with the corners Monday. ... Freshman early enrollee defensive lineman Trent Taylor did not practice Tuesday, but defensive end Jordan Williams returned to action. ... Receiver Justin Hunter practiced fairly fully Tuesday after his extensive work Monday in his return from knee surgery, though he appeared to walk with some soreness after practice.