Tennessee coach Derek Dooley talks after practice Wednesday at Haslam Field
Rajion Neal talks about the tradition of backs at UT
Photo by Adam Brimer, copyright © 2011 // Buy this photo
James Stone might just have the most analyzed and scrutinized right hand on the entire Tennessee roster.
The sophomore center understands why he fields question after question about snapping with his opposite hand, but he hopes to snuff out the fuss as soon as the Vols open the season against Montana.
"Once everybody gets to see that I go out there and I can do it significantly and consistently," Stone said after Wednesday's practice, "it won't be a big deal anymore."
Whether or not Stone will ever get a chance to show off his smooth snap has yet to be determined. He could very well be lined up left of fellow center Alex Bullard, or out of the starting rotation altogether.
Though the Vols boast one of the most stable, young offensive lines in the conference, there is still some shaking out to do before a bona fide starting five emerges. At the center of it all — both literally and figuratively — is Stone, whose well-regarded intelligence has helped provide offensive line coach Harry Hiestand with a truly versatile option.
"He's smart, even though sometimes he doesn't show it," said right guard Zach Fulton, Stone's roommate. "We'll be in the meeting room sometimes and Coach Hiestand will ask a question, and I'll probably be completely lost about it, but he'll know the answer.
"I appreciate that about him. He knows a lot on the field and off the field."
Stone's work ethic and intelligence recently caught another Vol's attention — and it had nothing to do with the fact that he and quarterback Tyler Bray could be seen practicing snaps hours on end throughout the summer.
Senior running back Tauren Poole, the player UT's offensive line has vowed to help guide to 2,000 yards this season, singled out Stone on Monday when he discussed the unit's potential.
"This summer he's been talking to me about defenses, stunts. I didn't get any of that last year," Poole said. "I was like 'Woah, where did this come from?' It's great to see."
It was at the urgency of Hiestand that Stone began breaking down film of opposing defenses as much as a quarterback. He said he found an hour or two each day — in between his classes and all of the snapping — to seclude himself in UT's film room, as he "became a student of the game."
"I really got the crackdown on that," Stone said. "Me and Bullard, we kind of got together a lot."
Stone called the competition between him and Bullard as "healthy" and "friendly." By the end of the month, though, it might not be a competition at all, as both could end up starting.
As it stood entering Tuesday's practice, according to a depth chart provided by the program, Stone was slotted as the starting center and Bullard was listed behind him. Both JerQuari Schofield and freshman Marcus Jackson were listed as potential starters at left guard.
But the potential moving and shaking was already on display Wednesday, as Bullard worked with Bray and the first team during early practice drills. Stone said he worked at both guard and center throughout the practice.
The goal is to not just put the five best linemen on the field, but to also diversify the players enough so that, no matter the situation, the next-best player comes off the bench in the event of an injury.
"We're still in the experimental stages, doing the same thing with the freshmen," Dooley said. "And each day you try to start settling in."
Stone, who played tackle in high school, began last season at guard and finished at center, said he has no preference where he lines up this season, just so long as he's "on the field and playing with my guys."
"I feel like I'm more comfortable and more knowledgeable with what I'm doing," Stone said. "I'm more comfortable making calls and being able to play different positions on the line."