Dooley: Why a bowl game is important
A couple days of training camp and an extra week of practice provided a chance to tweak some fundamentals.
It wasn’t enough time for the Tennessee football team to pull off a total overhaul, though.
The Vols were able to get James Stone more valuable reps at center as they prepared for Thursday’s Music City Bowl in Nashville against North Carolina (TV: ESPN, 6:30 p.m.), but the snaps were still left-handed and will continue to come from his throwback “pop-up” style. And while the freshman hasn’t really had any glaring errors with that delivery through four starts and UT is steadily becoming more comfortable with him anchoring the offensive line, his improvement apparently hasn’t changed Derek Dooley’s mind about making over Stone’s approach.
But for now the Vols’ coach isn’t messing with the good thing he’s got going.
“It’s better, but it’s not where I don’t worry about it,” Dooley said. “Because the fact of the matter is he’s still left-handed and he’s still snapping it in an unorthodox way and that won’t change. I’m always worried about it, but it is better than a month ago.
“So I haven’t changed anything. I’m still just trying to win the game, and I don’t want to disrupt anything. I think that’s something we’ll revisit after this game.”
The Vols (6-6) will have much more time to tinker before next season than they did this month preparing for the Tar Heels (7-5), though exactly what changes might be made with Stone haven’t yet been determined.
Based on his four starts working with freshman quarterback Tyler Bray, UT seemed to be making do just fine with its young battery, winning every game in November just to clinch a spot in the postseason as Stone was locking up Freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News in the process.
Even though mishaps were few and far between with Stone on the ball, there’s still been a couple nervous coaches before every play that might be more at ease with a traditional snap — though they’ll have to hold their breath for at least one more game.
“I don’t really think about changes too much right now,” Stone said. “For now, I’m just focused on getting the ball to the quarterback and getting my assignments, making my calls. It’s a new thing for the quarterback as well, so we just keep working it, repetition, trying to get as many reps as we can so we can stay sound and not have any mishaps.
“I’m way more comfortable now. I can get down, get the ball and make calls now as opposed to stumbling around and being nervous. I’m a lot more comfortable now than I was, especially since I had the chance to play some games at center. That really helped once I was able to get out there and have some real game experience snapping and making calls and making blocks.”
The Vols have had no concerns about Stone handling the other parts of the job, consistently raving about his intelligence and knowledge of the playbook as being perfect for a center and his size and athleticism allowing him to handle the physical aspect.
But it obviously all starts with the exchange at center, and when UT is done with North Carolina and gets a little more time on its hands, the coaching staff figures to turn its attention to Stone’s.
“I would argue center, next to quarterback, is the most difficult position to play on offense,” Dooley said. “It’s hard because you’re the quarterback up front. You’ve got to make the calls and the other guys are depending on you. If you don’t have intelligence, it’s hard to play that position.
“It says a lot about him and it says a lot about his mental capacity, it says a lot about his emotional maturity level. It says a lot about his physical skills, but he’s got a long way to go.”
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.