Offensive line coach did some 'homework'
By Austin Ward
History and tradition were at the top of the list.
Then there was the challenge of taking a crack in the brutally competitive world of the SEC.
But Sam Pittman has been around the profession long enough that even as appealing as those factors might be, after 21 years on college football sidelines, he also was in a position to look at one other crucial area when he considered the open spot on the UT coaching staff.
Clearly the new offensive line coach liked what he saw as he checked out the talent he'd inherit for his first season with the Vols.
"As you get older, I think you do more of that," Pittman said during his first media appearance with the program on Wednesday. "You decide when you can make decisions on where you're going to go work, I think you do your homework on who they have coming back and all this because obviously you're not a great coach unless you have great players.
"So, I evaluated our talent and they've done a nice job of recruiting offensive linemen here."
The Vols didn't sign any in their most recent class, but based on the haul they brought in during the previous two seasons, they
didn't really have a pressing need.
In some respect, Pittman was aware of the impressive job UT had been doing in rebuilding its line since he had targeted a few of the same players while at North Carolina.
A respected recruiter, Pittman might now benefit from a few second chances as he takes over a group that will return all five starters, another with significant first-team experience — and an enormous sophomore in Antonio Richardson, who could be primed for a breakout spring camp next month.
"I just saw a lot of experience coming back," Pittman said. "They're big kids — and anytime you have guys with that kind of size and that kind of athletic ability, that have experience, you're headed in the right direction.
"We're just now going through our (video) cut-ups and different things of that nature. But I would say this, more than anything that's stood out is the way they work. ... They've been busting their tail (in the offseason). Anytime you've got those type of characters in your offensive line room, I think you're going to have some success."
With essentially the same returning group at this time last year, there was a similar expectation for the Vols to blossom on the line after a handful were thrown into the fire as freshmen. And while UT generally seemed more sound in pass protection with Dallas Thomas and Ja'Wuan James playing tackle and the combination of Alex Bullard, Zach Fulton, Marcus Jackson or James Stone on the inside, the running game ranked among the worst in the nation.
All those experienced players now figure to benefit from another season of experience and additional time to develop physically. And while Pittman is clearly aware of their ability and potential, he's also reserving judgement on them until he actually gets something to evaluate in person.
"I think for those kids it's good that I don't have an opinion about any of them," Pittman said. "I'm trying not to have an opinion on who I think is really good, who's not very good, those things.
"We're not that far off. We have to just be more consistent, and that's with the line and everybody — and it's easier when you have game experience, when you have guys out there that have seen something before. That's probably what stood out the most (on film), but we've got some work to do."
Leading that effort in the trenches for UT is now Pittman's job. And he apparently had plenty of reasons to want it.