When Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney entered his unit’s meeting room last December, he felt like the newest member of an old club.
His five starters had played in 163 college games. They’d seen a lot of line coaches come and go, including the most recent one — Sam Pittman — who they liked a lot.
So Mahoney delivered a frank and conciliatory message.
‘I said, ‘You seniors do not know me well. You’ve had numerous coaches come through. I don’t expect you to trust me (from the start),’ ” Mahoney said.
Rather than rebel against their new coach, the group of veterans have embraced him. Mahoney has been impressed. And while head coach Butch Jones has gone out of his way to avoid heaping too much praise on the line, Mahoney can’t hide his excitement.
“In all my years, this is the most talented bunch that I’ve been around,” he said.
They’re also good guys.
“They know me to be real and up front, and I know that I’m getting the same from them by their body language,” Mahoney said. “They’re talented, but they’re really some high-character guys.
“They deserve to go out the right way. Whatever that is, I don’t know. But they deserve it. That’s what we’re working toward.”
This will be the last year for the Vols’ starting line. In addition to seniors James Stone, Zach Fulton, Alex Bullard and Ja’Wuan James, junior Antonio “Tiny” Richardson is all but certain to leave early for the NFL.
If the Vols don’t turn things around in 2013, they will leave after being part of one of the bleakest eras in modern UT football.
“It’s a lot of motivation because we’ve put in a lot of work together over the years and we haven’t seen the success we’d like to see,” said Stone. “So this year really motivates us to lead and try to push other guys along as well as push each other to become better.”
Mahoney sees that dynamic when he walks into the meeting room. The veterans know each other well. They’re smart. They ask good questions. There are no egos, and they’re eager to help the younger players who will be left behind in 2014.
Mahoney has been a coach for two decades. He’s had good lines and bad lines, fat ones and weak ones, too many tackles and not enough guards. But he freely admits he’s never been around a unit quite like this.
“I’m enjoying every minute of it,” he said. “To be around these guys and their skill sets and their work ethic and attitudes has been tremendous.”
This sounds like exactly the type of praise that Jones has discouraged. With a brutal schedule looming, Jones doesn’t want overconfidence to be pounded out of his line in the SEC.
But Mahoney said the character of this year’s group gives him few worries.
“There’s been a lot of patting on their back,” Mahoney said. “I’ve told them, ‘Guys, we haven’t accomplished a thing.’ They know that. They understand that.”
There’s something else Mahoney always repeats: “You guys deserve to leave here the right way.”
It’s a goal based on mutual affection.
“I really believe that,” Mahoney said.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org