Alex Bullard is typically among the last players to leave the Tennessee practice field.
On Tuesday he was tied with quarterback Matt Simms, and there was plenty of incentive for the two Vols to squeeze in some extra work together.
The ball has already been back in the hands of Simms for a game after an injury moved him into the starting lineup again. Now some shaky snaps have forced another change, and it appears Alex Bullard will be the new guy in charge of delivering them for the Vols as they prepare for another stiff test from No. 2 Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 7:15 p.m.).
“Well, you know, we work a lot of guys, like we always do,” UT coach Derek Dooley said after practice. “Just trying to find the right pieces, and I don’t think it’s any secret that James (Stone) has been inconsistent on the shotgun snaps. And we can’t not get in the shotgun, so we’ll look at them a little bit and see if that (works), and James has played some guard before.
“It’s not something you want to do, but it’s also something that when you have a pattern, you have to not be afraid to take some action.”
The Vols (3-3, 0-3 SEC) decided it was time to do it during meetings on Monday, pulling the trigger on the switch from left guard to center from Bullard and going the opposite way with Stone on the interior of the offensive line.
Stone continued working with the starters on Tuesday morning as practice for the Crimson Tide (7-0, 4-0) resumed, sliding back to the spot where he first broke into the lineup as a freshman last year with three starts at left guard. But at least for now, it seems the ball is out of his hands as UT looks at another converted center without any previous game experience at the position.
“I mean, it’s my first game going against one of the best defenses in the country at center, but one of our big things is just focusing on what we each have to do,” Bullard said. “My focus this week is to make the calls, communicate and get the ball to the quarterback, and that’s what I’m going to try to do.
“You know, the coaches called my number, they said we needed to do this, and if they didn’t think was the best chance for us to win, I doubt they’d be doing it. We just have to trust in them, and we’re rolling with it. I felt good today doing it.”
The next step is finding out how it feels for Bullard in a more pressurized situation, and there couldn’t be a much harder scenario for a debut than going on the road to face one of the nation’s best defenses.
Alabama figures to make moving the ball difficult enough without much help. So given the recent struggles as part of Stone’s transition to the position, Dooley appears ready to look elsewhere to clean up a few self-inflicted wounds from off-target snaps.
“You run the risk of having growing pains, but I think one of the real challenges as a coach is coaching the right guys in the right spots and trusting the development,” Dooley said. “That requires some early evaluation of who is more natural. If you guys remember, we did this back in the summer and I think because Alex was so new into the system, it was hard for us to bounce him back and forth. We decided just to settle in and we had a guy that had six games under his belt, it just didn’t make sense at the time.
“But we’re still showing a lot of inconsistencies, and we were hoping those inconsistencies would go away, but they haven’t. We can’t stick our head in the sand.”
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.