Vols believe they can have elite offensive line

In this photo taken March 9, 2013, Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney instructs players Marques Pair, left, Zach Fulton, Ja'Wuan James, James Stone, and Alex Bullard during spring NCAA football practice in Knoxville, Tenn. With four starters back from a group that allowed only eight sacks last season, Tennessee expects to have one of the best offensive lines in the country this fall. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Amy Smotherman Burgess)

In this photo taken March 9, 2013, Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney instructs players Marques Pair, left, Zach Fulton, Ja'Wuan James, James Stone, and Alex Bullard during spring NCAA football practice in Knoxville, Tenn. With four starters back from a group that allowed only eight sacks last season, Tennessee expects to have one of the best offensive lines in the country this fall. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Amy Smotherman Burgess)

In this photo taken March 9, 2013, Tennessee offensive linemen Zach Fulton, left, and James Stone (64) participate in a drill during spring football practice in Knoxville, Tenn. With four starters back from a group that allowed only eight sacks last season, Tennessee expects to have one of the best offensive lines in the country this fall. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Amy Smotherman Burgess)

In this photo taken March 9, 2013, Tennessee offensive linemen Zach Fulton, left, and James Stone (64) participate in a drill during spring football practice in Knoxville, Tenn. With four starters back from a group that allowed only eight sacks last season, Tennessee expects to have one of the best offensive lines in the country this fall. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Amy Smotherman Burgess)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's offensive linemen don't bother to downplay their expectations.

They know they have as much experience as just about any line in college football, and say they can be as good as any line in the nation.

"I feel like we definitely have the talent and capability to have the best offensive line, really, in the country," offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "We've just got to work every day to get that. We want to set our bar high."

That's a pretty bold comment for a team coming off a third straight losing season, but James has facts to back up his optimism.

Tennessee returns four starters from a line that allowed only eight sacks last season. The only Football Bowl Subdivision teams to give up a lower sack total were North Texas and Middle Tennessee, which each attempted over 100 fewer passes than the Volunteers.

The Vols rushed for 160.3 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry last year, significant increases from their 2011 averages of 90.1 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry.

But those statistics don't mean anything to new offensive line coach Don Mahoney, who previously worked on new head coach Butch Jones' staffs at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Mahoney cites Tennessee's 5-7 record last year as evidence more improvement is needed.

"It boils down to this - winning football games," Mahoney said. "It's not about what was done statistically. That's what drives me nuts. Especially as an offensive line, there's only one stat that matters, and that's winning, bottom line."

The linemen agree. This senior-dominated group has grown tired of losing and realizes it must lead a young offense.

Tennessee expects to have at least six players from its 2012 offense drafted next month. The Vols are breaking in a new starting quarterback and don't return any wideouts who caught more than 13 passes last season. The line must perform well to make up for Tennessee's inexperience at the skill positions.

"We came up playing on this offensive line together, and this is our third or fourth year together," center James Stone said. "It's real important for us to take some of the burden off some of these guys where it's their first time getting out there, to try to lead as positive role models."

Stone, James and guard Zach Fulton give the Tennessee offensive line three seniors with a combined 92 starts. Tennessee also returns junior Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, a second-team all-Southeastern Conference selection last season. Richardson is participating in spring workouts on a limited basis as he recovers from minor offseason knee surgery.

Tennessee must replace likely draft pick Dallas Thomas at one guard spot, but the top candidates for the job have starting experience. Alex Bullard started 12 games in 2011 and two more last season, while Marcus Jackson made five starts in 2011.

All that experience on the line creates plenty of expectations.

"They're solid players, but they've got to play better than they did a year ago," Mahoney said. "Last year wasn't good enough. That's the challenge for me. That's a challenge for them that they have to understand. I hit it home to them every chance possible, that it wasn't good enough. We've got to play beyond that. We've got to work that much harder to do things better than we did a year ago."

Tennessee's linemen have lost weight to adjust to the faster pace of Jones' offense. Mahoney estimated the linemen collectively have dropped about 80 pounds.

For example, Fulton was listed as 324 pounds last season, but he said he weighed up to 336 during the offseason. Fulton's down to 320 now and can't imagine how he'd have adjusted to Jones' uptempo practices if he still weighed 336.

"I would have passed out, basically," Fulton said.

James said he has lost about 20 pounds and is down to 315 after cutting out late-night snacks and switching from sports drinks to water. He believes the weight loss should lead to better performance late in games.

"Definitely, there were a lot of opportunities we didn't take advantage of in the fourth quarter last year," James said. "That was really a big factor in the results of our season. It starts with the o-line. The mistakes we make affect everyone else, affect the whole offense."

Their test is to avoid gaining weight during spring break before the Vols resume spring practice next week. Mahoney's critiques warn the linemen that they can't get complacent. Yes, the linemen had a good season last year. But that 5-7 record shows they weren't quite good enough.

"We're in a position in which that's it," Mahoney said. "It doesn't matter how many yards, stats, this, that and the other. At the end of the day, let's go and win ballgames. Period."

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Comments » 36

HooRay_Vol writes:

This would have been the year! A senior line with Bray, Hunter, Patterson and D. Rogers. Would have been the best offense in the SEC and with an improved defense possibly SEC champs.

But this senior line will not disappoint and we will be much improved! Having an improved coach will also make a difference.

Dickattrade writes:

in response to HooRay_Vol:

This would have been the year! A senior line with Bray, Hunter, Patterson and D. Rogers. Would have been the best offense in the SEC and with an improved defense possibly SEC champs.

But this senior line will not disappoint and we will be much improved! Having an improved coach will also make a difference.

I agree with this comment with one exception....I think having an improved coach will make a HUGE difference.

laraccoon writes:

"Tennessee expects to have at least six players from its 2012 offense drafted next month." with that group of players and could not even make a bowl and with the exceptioin of Patterson lost to Ky. the previous year .i guess i can understand why so many assistants bailed after the 2011 season .

orange_eVOLution writes:

Win games. Darn right.

GO VOLS!!

pcorange writes:

Sounds like Mahoney has the right attitude. Stats of one group don't mean much coming off a third consecutive losing season. Wins are all that matters, and we are in sore need of 'em.

cheetah-vol writes:

in response to pcorange:

Sounds like Mahoney has the right attitude. Stats of one group don't mean much coming off a third consecutive losing season. Wins are all that matters, and we are in sore need of 'em.

Agree. The OL was one of the few shining parts of last year's team and, rightfully, received the praise they got. But, I like the way Mahoney isn't going to let that go to their heads and not let them they think they can't be even better.

antonio14313 writes:

in response to laraccoon:

"Tennessee expects to have at least six players from its 2012 offense drafted next month." with that group of players and could not even make a bowl and with the exceptioin of Patterson lost to Ky. the previous year .i guess i can understand why so many assistants bailed after the 2011 season .

either i'm missing something, or six from the OFFENSE is a high number?? ok, lemme type and think: bray, patterson, hunter, OL thomas, rivera (hopefully)... who's the sixth? i think that the writer meant to say that there'd be six from the ENTIRE TEAM that they expect to be drafted. the rest of our vols, sorry to say, will be free agents. but, hopefully successful pros!!!

go vols.

t

antonio14313 writes:

i think that we very well could have the best OL in the country, especially if they maintain muscle strength with all the weight loss. all 5 starters on this line will be future NFL draft picks! go vols.

t

jack4444 writes:

in response to antonio14313:

either i'm missing something, or six from the OFFENSE is a high number?? ok, lemme type and think: bray, patterson, hunter, OL thomas, rivera (hopefully)... who's the sixth? i think that the writer meant to say that there'd be six from the ENTIRE TEAM that they expect to be drafted. the rest of our vols, sorry to say, will be free agents. but, hopefully successful pros!!!

go vols.

t

Bray, Hunter, CP, Thomas, Rivera, and Austin Rogers.

6972 writes:

If there are no holes for the backs to run thru and there is no protection for the QB this year, there never will be. The trenches are where the rubber meets the road. Will be interesting to see how the SEC defenses try to play us. Can't wait till Sept. Go Vols and kick some butties.

brokendownoldvol writes:

All 4-5 stars players with over 40 starts each I would hope so. Good grief.

Jakevol writes:

Best statement in this column, boils down to winning games

Lizardgrad89 writes:

in response to HooRay_Vol:

This would have been the year! A senior line with Bray, Hunter, Patterson and D. Rogers. Would have been the best offense in the SEC and with an improved defense possibly SEC champs.

But this senior line will not disappoint and we will be much improved! Having an improved coach will also make a difference.

With SIGNIFICANT defensive improvement and all those players back, there are conferences that UT oould have won this year. Not the SEC, though. You have to be the best team in the nation to win the SEC.

Lizardgrad89 writes:

in response to 6972:

If there are no holes for the backs to run thru and there is no protection for the QB this year, there never will be. The trenches are where the rubber meets the road. Will be interesting to see how the SEC defenses try to play us. Can't wait till Sept. Go Vols and kick some butties.

You have a brand new QB and brand new WR's. Teams will crowd the line to stop the run and bring pressure on the QB until you prove you can make them pay for it.

Now you know, and don't have to wait until Sept to find out.

The_Power_T writes:

I'm still waiting to see who the starting QB is. If we use Worley bird, I think we'd have to run more of a pro style offense. If Peterman gets the call, I'd think we could run more of a spread, unorthodox offense that could give defenses trouble. Running qbs are hard to prepare for because you basically have an extra player on offense. With such a strong, experienced O line, the pocket could be the whole backfield with Peterman. Not necessarily lobbying for Peterman because frankly I've never seen the kid play college ball. I just feel a dual threat QB gives us a better chance to win with the lack of proven offensive weapons. Either way, the O line should really be a special one, and possibly the best collective group of O line this university has ever seen.

Bark_at_the_Moon writes:

Had Bray, Hunter & Patterson come back for one more year and been pushed like this coaching staff is pushing, this Offense would have been really good! With an average Defense, we would have won at 3 more games last year. I'm hoping getting away from the 3-4 will make the difference, but I'm now worried about an unproven QB and WR's.

jakethevolguy writes:

The OL didn't loose games last year. The defense did.

RatherBeDrivingaTitleist writes:

in response to Lizardgrad89:

You have a brand new QB and brand new WR's. Teams will crowd the line to stop the run and bring pressure on the QB until you prove you can make them pay for it.

Now you know, and don't have to wait until Sept to find out.

Thanks for explaining all that to us lizardman, I hope we will be able to make them pay. Keep providing us with your wisdom and maybe someday we will be as smart as you are.

gillblog writes:

As I've said before, I don't know how this coaching staff will turn out in the end but at the very least they generate a feeling there are football people in control.

orangecountyvols writes:

Vols,

Looking at the photo of the offensive linemen.......and wearing all those knee braces, reminds me of the Sunday morning sound offs after a game, on the Sports Animal...........with Jimmy Hyams and Tim Irwin.

I thought it was kind of amusing the comments Tim made about those knee braces. He said " I never have liked them. They look like robots wearing those things."

Tim wasn't too bad at what he did for the Vols and the Vikings.

Couchdummy writes:

Do any of the offensive linemen coming in as freshmen this fall have enough potential to see relief duty?

orangecountyvols writes:

Will never, ever forget that 4th O T with Missouri.

1st play gained 8, and it was 2nd and 2 at the 17. 3 straight incomplete passes.........game, set, and match.

The offensive line couldn't make a push for 2 yards on 3 plays? Wait, it was the play calling, not the offensive line. Excuse me !

rb4346 writes:

Earlier this year a 3* kicker was going to become a Vol walk on and I read somewhere that Urban Meyer was talking about offering him a scholarship. Does anyone know what the situation is on this. Thanks for the info..

SouthPaVol writes:

in response to gillblog:

As I've said before, I don't know how this coaching staff will turn out in the end but at the very least they generate a feeling there are football people in control.

right. instead of lawyers. Go Vols!

nocleats writes:

Getting their strength to match their size! Seniors yes, but these guys in all fairness should be 4th year redshirt JRs and would have been if LK hadnt blown the team up. I still want to see a mean streak come out and the Violence level go way way up. Get strong mean nasty dirty and VIOLENT!!!!! Strength kills!

Sir_Spanky writes:

Offensive line. It's where it all starts.

orangeman1 writes:

I remember thinkiing how far the Vols would drop off losing Peyton Manning too, but turns out that we won a National Championship the next year. I'm not saying thats going to happen, but if UT can get a running game going then one of the backups could really do some damage to other teams. I just hope the defense is much improved this year or it wouldnt matter if Peyton himself was qb.

tovolny writes:

in response to Couchdummy:

Do any of the offensive linemen coming in as freshmen this fall have enough potential to see relief duty?

Whoever can answer this question, PLEASE report to the Athletic Department and submit your application ASAP. We (UT) will put you in charge recruiting. Recruiters could use someone with this much foresight and evaluation skills. Geeeeeessseeeee, are you kidding me?

volnvette03 writes:

in response to jack4444:

Bray, Hunter, CP, Thomas, Rivera, and Austin Rogers.

Do you mean Zach Rogers?

frblalack writes:

Vols will be just fine! We'll have the best O line in the country & our slots & backs will surprise many in the SEC!

Go Big Orange

HtownVol writes:

Other fans will disagree that UT has the best OL in the country I cant find anyone that has a better one. Bama may end up being better but going in the season UT has the best on paper.

With the O-Line, RBs and the loaded WR group I think UT can have one of the best offenses in the SEC again as long as the QB plays well.

Speaking of UT QBs... How in the blank in Matt Simms on the Jets roster??? Are they that desperate?

dmcsteel writes:

Wow! It is nice to see a lot of positive Vol fans posting comments instead of all the negative bs after we hired Coach Jones. It is obvious that this is a relentless, hard working coaching staff that relishes the opportunity they have been given here. NOW, if their everyday and game-day coaching skills match their enthusiasm and rhetoric, then we really have something special. I get more excited every time I read something about this coaching staff and can't wait til the season starts. And, how bout dat recruiting! Go Vols! and God Bless Butch Jones and his coaching staff!

Ayres_Hall writes:

in response to jakethevolguy:

The OL didn't loose games last year. The defense did.

I dunno. Maybe we should have scored more?

While your post makes sense, the coach of the OL wants his guys to think in terms of the team. The team lost so everyone lost and carries the load.

springtx_vol writes:

in response to jakethevolguy:

The OL didn't loose games last year. The defense did.

Not taking time to look this up, so a little slack is requested:

- 13 points against Vandy, everyone played horribly.
- I was at the Florida game, we had the ball at least three times with the opportunity to go up two scores, got NOTHING. CP quit on a sideline route that could have been a long gain during that run. If the offense had played better, the defense could have been more bend/don't break and maybe not given up two long td's.
- Someone else mentioned the MO overtime.
- With the ball and a chance to tie or go ahead against Miss St and USC, couldn't get it done. Yes, a fumble against MSU hurt and a great play by the best defensive player for USC hurt. But . . . . the other team made the plays, we didn't.

Was it play calling, maybe. But there were a lot of little things that impacted the final score.

Olddogsrule writes:

in response to volnvette03:

Do you mean Zach Rogers?

Austin Powers

johnlg00 writes:

in response to springtx_vol:

Not taking time to look this up, so a little slack is requested:

- 13 points against Vandy, everyone played horribly.
- I was at the Florida game, we had the ball at least three times with the opportunity to go up two scores, got NOTHING. CP quit on a sideline route that could have been a long gain during that run. If the offense had played better, the defense could have been more bend/don't break and maybe not given up two long td's.
- Someone else mentioned the MO overtime.
- With the ball and a chance to tie or go ahead against Miss St and USC, couldn't get it done. Yes, a fumble against MSU hurt and a great play by the best defensive player for USC hurt. But . . . . the other team made the plays, we didn't.

Was it play calling, maybe. But there were a lot of little things that impacted the final score.

Good points. Just shows what a fine line there often is between winning and losing, no matter what the final score may be. Maybe the Vols are due for a little good luck and actually making some clutch plays in some of those situations.

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