Game preview: UT vs. Kentucky
A funny thing happened to Zach Fulton on his way to becoming Tennessee's starting right guard.
As physically ready as any of UT's freshman linemen, Fulton was able to bide a little time before he was thrust into a starting role. Meanwhile, fellow freshmen Ja'Wuan James, UT's starting right tackle since the season opener, and James Stone have been regular starters since the end of September because of position-specific injuries and overall depth issues.
Fulton was afforded the relatively rare luxury of waiting through the entire first half of the season before he started his first collegiate game in October against Alabama - a performance that drew rave reviews from his teammates and coach Derek Dooley.
And though Fulton missed a game with a sore ankle and will likely play through some pain Saturday (TV: WVLT, 12:21 p.m.) for the Vols (5-6, 2-5 SEC) against Kentucky (6-5, 2-5), he's been entrenched at right guard ever since. He's yet to hit that "freshman wall," Dooley said, because he was one of the few exceptions in UT's abrupt youth movement on offense.
"He had a nice development. A little bit like (Tyler) Bray," Dooley said. "Because of that he steadily got better and better. Where it's hard is when you throw them right in and eventually the grind of the season beats on them. A little bit like Ja'Wuan."
It's been tough for defenders to beat on Fulton because, well, he's one of UT's most physically imposing players on either side of the ball.
Because Fulton was already 6-foot-4 and 308 pounds coming out of Homewood Flossmoor High School in Homewood, Ill., UT's coaches - both from the former staff and current one - had no trouble assuring him that he'd at least have a chance to compete for a starting job on the soon-to-be decimated offensive line. Fulton said he didn't exactly know what to do to his body during summer workout sessions, so he opted to to go bigger instead of sleeker.
He now weighs in at 328 pounds - about three pounds heavier than what his coaches want.
"I had to do some work," Fulton said in the first interview of his UT career Wednesday. "I guess me being really big did help me a lot."
Ask around, and that's the first word you'll hear from Fulton's teammates when they're asked to describe him: Big.
"He brings that physical presence inside," said senior guard Jarrod Shaw, who, at 331 pounds, still had no problem referring to Fulton as "Big Zach."
"Zach came in real strong and is a real strong dude," senior defensive end Gerald Williams said. "When he gets his hands on you, it can be a rap."
Some players around the SEC, Fulton confidently admitted, have had to learn that the hard way.
Against the Crimson Tide, Fulton remembered one play where he drove defensive lineman Damion Square 15 yards down the field. A few other big plays in that game elicited some unprompted praise from Dooley, who named Fulton his Offensive Player of the Week after a "phenomenal game."
One week later against South Carolina, Fulton said he and James received a game's worth of smack talk from one Gamecocks' defensive lineman who didn't exactly respect the all-true freshman right side of the UT offensive line.
"We didn't really say anything back to him," Fulton said. "But he was surprised."
Because of the sprained ankle, Fulton missed the Ole Miss game and was limited to just 20 snaps last week against Vanderbilt, as he split time with Shaw. Fulton said he's now close to 100 percent, but hasn't been participating in all team drills throughout practice this week because "they don't want to risk the chance of me aggravating the injury even more."
The setback hasn't done much to his confidence, which he had no trouble admitting Wednesday was "pretty high right now."
"I know I can compete with the best of them," he said. "I just had to work my way up and do everything (offensive line coach Harry) Hiestand told me what to do.
"He told me that from the beginning that I had the opportunity to start and eventually I did."