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UT's Ja'Wuan James

KNOXVILLE - Ja'Wuan James could have jumped.

One phone call and one meeting were enough to cancel any flickering thoughts the Tennessee right tackle had of doing so.

The opportunity to leave the Volunteers' program after his junior season and follow three classmates into the NFL draft was there for James, but the player who's started all 37 games of his Tennessee career decided to play his senior season under new Vols coach Butch Jones.

"The first day he got here, he called me and he showed that he really wanted to bring Tennessee back and that he really cared," James said Friday during the Vols' pre-spring practice media day.

"He talked to the guys who were thinking about leaving, and just sitting down and talking to him, I knew it was genuine, and I liked what he was talking about, how he wanted things to change and how I could really help.

"I love it here, and I feel like I have a lot left to still accomplish. I came here with goals that are still attainable this next year. I'm trying to go to a bowl game, and I'm trying to win a bowl game -- I just feel like I needed to come back."

After passing on the chance to join quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter in declaring for the NFL draft, James believes both the tackle tandem of himself and junior left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson and the Vols' entire offensive line can be the nation's best.

"I never really thought about [the NFL draft] until people started saying it to me," he said. "I was just focused on the season and stuff like that and focused on playing, but people started talking about it. The bottom line is I'm happy I stayed, and I'm here now.

"I just really appreciate the new staff and what they're trying to do with us."

Personnel notes

After playing tailback for two seasons, rising junior Devrin Young will work at slot receiver this spring, though Jones suggested multiple offensives roles could be in the Knoxville native's future.

"He's definitely a quick-twitch guy," quarterback Justin Worley said. "He brings some speed to the slot position. He's a small target, but he runs good routes and he's willing to learn the position, and that's huge."

As he did to start last spring, 6-foot-1, 214-pound rising senior Brent Brewer will slide from safety to linebacker.

"I think Brent has a lot of great athletic ability," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "That's an opportunity for us to get more speed on the field. The thing that I've been so impressed with about Brent is just his attitude.

"He's very professional, very businesslike, just very consistent from what I can see so far."

Rising senior Jacques Smith from Ooltewah and freshman early enrollee Corey Vereen will work at the Leo spot, a defensive end/linebacker hybrid position. After two seasons at defensive end, Smith played linebacker in the Vols' 3-4 defense last season. Vereen was the only linebacker Tennessee signed in the 2013 class.

Linebacker Curt Maggitt will miss spring practice as he recovers from tearing his ACL against Missouri last November, as will freshman early enrollee Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who had labrum surgery in January and will play safety when he's healthy.

Jones said Tennessee will "pick our spots" with Richardson, who underwent procedures on his knee and shoulder during the offseason.

Safety Brian Randolph, who will practice this spring, received a medical redshirt after tearing his ACL against Florida in the third game of last season and is now a redshirt sophomore.

Losing weight

Jones asked some of Tennessee's offensive linemen to drop a few pounds as he prepares to implement a fast-paced power spread system that will require the big guys to be well conditioned and mobile on the perimeter.

"It's really based on the individual," he said. "We had some guys who we felt were a little overweight and couldn't move in the tempo by which we want play. We have a talented group up front, but I don't ever want to take their edge away and their strength away."

Strength coach Dave Lawson didn't let that happen.

"He had us in there working to lose weight, drop some of the fat and gain muscle and gain strength," James said. "A lot of guys cooperated. We lost a lot of pounds -- 10, 12, 16 pounds.

"In this fast-paced offense we're trying to run, as an offensive lineman you've got to be in shape and you've got to be ready, so Coach Lawson did a good job of that."

A.J. the Q.B.

Tennessee is going back to a 4-3 defense, but A.J. Johnson won't go back to outside linebacker, where he played in the 4-3 under coordinator Justin Wilcox as a freshman in 2011.

Instead the rising junior will remain in the middle, where he led the SEC in tackles in the Vols' 3-4 defense last season.

"Pretty much, linebacker is linebacker," he said. "I feel like I can play anywhere, but I know I'm going to be playing in the middle so I'm going to be controlling the defense. I'll be the quarterback for the defense, and I'm all ready for it."