When Tennessee and Ole Miss kick off Saturday, the Vols — barring unforeseen circumstances — will officially have half the number of wins this season as they do different starting offensive line rotations.
That’s by no means an achievement coach Derek Dooley will embrace. He’s not looking for diversity up front.
“You have to communicate up there,” Dooley said at his Monday press conference. “If all five guys aren’t working together in sync, you get disjointed. And that happens to us a lot.”
The latest change to the starting group will likely come when Jarrod Shaw, who has played the past three games at left guard, will move back to the right side to fill in for freshman Zach Fulton (ankle), who is “doubtful” for Saturday’s game (TV: WVLT, noon), Dooley said. JerQuari Schofield would then start at left guard, giving the Vols the same front five that finished Saturday’s 50-14 win at Memphis.
“It used to be ankles were day-to-day,” Dooley said. “I don’t know, we put them in big boots now and you don’t see them for a while. And it’s really hurt us up front.”
Both of Tennessee’s tackles, Dallas Thomas —who played through an ankle injury earlier in the season, albeit poorly — and Ja’Wuan James, have started all nine games at the same position this season. Shaw has been just as healthy, but has flipped and flopped between left and right guard.
Schofield entered the season as UT’s starting left guard, but missed four games after injuring his foot against Florida. He returned to action briefly against South Carolina and played nearly three full quarters against Memphis, but has had a tough time retaining knowledge because of his youth, Dooley said.
Like left guard, UT has started three different players at center. Cody Pope went down against Oregon with a stinger and could likely be done for the season. Darin Gooch, a junior-college transfer, was thrown into action and started six games, but wasn’t effective enough to retain his job.
James Stone, who started three games at left guard after Schofield’s injury, took over at center against Memphis, and that’s where he will likely finish the season.
“He’s just a good presence in the middle,” Dooley said. “He really did some things there that we hadn’t been able to do inside and it helped us.”
Stone’s new presence in the middle, combined with yet another injury, just won’t do much for the chemistry of UT’s O-line, which has been faced with new faces in new places far too often this season.
“You get used to the guy next to you, hearing his voice, what’s his call, you know what he’s going to do,” Dooley said. “It just takes time and experience. And when you get new guys in there all the time now, it’s hard, it’s difficult. Even if you have veteran guys.”
Personnel roundup: Dooley said it would be “unrealistic” to expect cornerback Naz Oliver (knee) to return Saturday for his first game of the season.
“Oliver is full-go, but he’s really not ready,” Dooley said. “Even though it looks good on paper.”
Dooley said he would find out more about cornerback Marsalis Teague (turf toe) at today’s practice.
Dooley said “there is a good chance” Daniel Lincoln, who has not played since September, will kick in practice this week.
Cornerback Art Evans, who is indefinitely suspended for a violation of team rules, is “still working on clearing up his stuff,” Dooley said.
“We anticipate him clearing up his stuff but I don’t know how long it’s going to take,” Dooley said.
Day of rest: UT’s players received an unexpected Monday off from Dooley, who said the team’s stretch of six games in six weeks requires an extra day away from the field from time to time.
UT didn’t practice on two consecutive Mondays in October heading into its mid-season bye.
“It kind of fits with what we did earlier,” Dooley said.
Who’s telling the truth?: Defensive tackle Malik Jackson was in the wrong place at the right time Saturday when he intercepted a Memphis pass and returned it 44 yards.
“I was supposed to rush over the center a little bit,” said Jackson, who instead dropped back into coverage to intercept the pass. “Misunderstanding between me and (defensive line coach Chuck Smith). I’ll fix it and hopefully get another one doing it the right way.”
That misunderstanding carried over into the Sunday film room, when Dooley said he praised defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox for the play call.
“They must have kept it a secret when we watched the film together,” Dooley said. “I said ‘This hold coverage really looks good.’ I’ll be getting with Wilcox after this one.”
Not buying it: Dooley knows Ole Miss backup quarterback Nathan Stanley fairly well, but he doesn’t expect to get to see him much Saturday.
Dooley, who tried to recruit Stanley to Louisiana Tech, said he doubts Ole Miss starter Jeremiah Masoli (concussion) will be held out of the game.
“I’d be shocked,” Dooley said. “They’ll say ‘Is he playing?’ and it will be day to day, but he’s fine.”
Andrew Gribble covers Tennessee football and recruiting. He may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble/