UT coach Derek Dooley talks after Saturday's practice
Ja'Wuan James, James Stone and Zach Fulton left Gibbs Hall on a cold night this winter with one goal in mind: Get James a new XBox.
A few hours later, they were Internet celebrities.
James, Stone and Fulton - all 971 pounds of them and covered head to toe in Tennessee gear - were stopped by a fan, baby in tow. As the three UT offensive linemen tell the story, the baby was calm and quiet before it was handed over to James, who held the screaming child while a photo was snapped of the group.
Three smiling Vols. One terrified child. Internet gold.
"Once we saw the picture," Stone said, "we were laughing for a while."
As the clicks, tweets and re-tweets show, so many others were able to laugh along with the trio, which spends just as much time together off the field as it does anchoring down the right half of UT's young offensive line.
"It's been great for them and I think it will pay off over time," coach Derek Dooley said. "We went through a lot of changes up front, and it's hard when you don't have continuity on the offensive line.
"Those guys, fortunately, like each other, so they spend a lot of time together."
Stone and Fulton are roommates, and Fulton calls James his "best friend." When he was playing on both sides of the ball at Maplewood High in Nashville, Stone said it was the same way: The biggest guys on the field just stick with each other away from it.
Whether it's the movie theater, at a restaurant or inside left tackle Dallas Thomas' apartment, you're more than likely to spot all three together than just one of them.
"Playing right next to each other," Fulton said, "you've got to be friends."
The three linemen, all of whom hail from different states, made their mark on the offensive line in different ways and at different times last year, but all three were regulars by the end - and should be considered that way going into the 2011 season.
James enrolled early and started all 13 games at right tackle. Stone, after working a few games at left guard, made the transition to center and started the final five games. Fulton didn't see the field much at all through the first half of the season, but he broke into the rotation against Alabama in October and started five of the final seven games.
All three looked the part of SEC offensive linemen and seemingly improved with each game, but all three, Dooley said, simply weren't strong enough to push around defensive linemen like they should at their size.
"Our strength levels have to come up to match our bulk and size," Dooley said. "And when you get that, now you can start doing something up front."
James admitted his biggest weakness last season was his strength. He attacked that by not only improving his maximum repetition weights by 30 pounds in all core areas, but he also dropped some ticks off his 40-yard dash time.
Fulton said he improved his 40 time, added 60 pounds to his squat lifts and 30 pounds on the bench press.
Stone didn't toss around numbers like his buddies, but said he's focused heavily on improving his leg strength.
"The three of us starting on the offensive line last year, I guess we weren't really that strong or where we needed to be (physically)," Fulton said. "We're trying to get to where we need to be."
At this time last year, the five offensive linemen who ran with the first team at Saturday's practice - Thomas at left tackle, freshman Marcus Jackson at left guard, Stone at center, Fulton at right guard and James at right tackle - had a combined zero career starts. Now, there are 39 starts and a lot more muscle on a line that quickly has emerged as one of more optimism-filled areas of the team.
It's an effort that's been in the works both on the practice field and, well, pretty much all day, every day.
"That helps when they are in the huddle together," Dooley said. "It helps when they are on the line of scrimmage communicating. I'm expecting them to really start taking off up front."