Ja’Wuan James, James Stone and Zach Fulton had to learn on the job last year, when the freshmen were expected to help anchor Tennessee’s offensive line.
They took their lumps, but now that experience is paying off.
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”We needed each other a lot. It was a good feeling knowing you weren’t the only one out there that was getting thrown into the fire,” James said. ”We just had each other’s back, and I feel like you play better when you are playing for the guy next to you as well.”
The three sophomores who each got at least five starts last season brought plenty of raw talent to the field but made numerous mental mistakes while trying to learn how to block the fierce defensive lines in the Southeastern Conference.
Coach Derek Dooley still sees the occasional error from the players who likely will start for the Volunteers when they open Sept. 3 against Montana, but he still feels better about the unit.
James, who started every game last season, is expected to continue at right tackle, with Fulton at right guard, where he made five starts in 2010, and Stone at center. Junior Dallas Thomas is the starting left tackle and is expected to be joined by sophomore Alex Bullard at left guard.
”I think the whole right side has made tremendous progress,” Dooley said. ”We’re not as far along on the left side because it took us a while to figure out the left guard position. We’re not where we need to be, but they’re getting better every day. As long as we don’t have any injuries or anything crazy happen, I think we have what we want right there.”
Linebacker Austin Johnson noticed in Tennessee’s scrimmage Saturday how the offensive line’s improvement has affected sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray.
”He was really cool in the pocket and I feel he had a lot of confidence in the o-line,” Johnson said. ”I feel like he went through his reads and with him at quarterback you never know where he’s going to go and he can put the ball anywhere he wants. You just have to be on your feet.”
Senior running back Tauren Poole, who rushed for 1,034 yards behind the inexperienced line a season ago, is looking forward to what he can do behind a bigger, stronger and more experienced front this year.
”I’m just excited to run behind the whole offensive line,” he said. ”They have improved and matured, it’s great to see. I know the coaches love it as well.”
Thomas has taken it upon himself as the unit’s elder statesman to keep pushing his younger teammates to see how much further they can go before the season begins.
”Being the older guy, you have to keep the younger guys’ heads focused,” Thomas said. ”You just have to keep on pushing because we still have a couple more opportunities before the next game.”
Bullard, who transferred to Tennessee after spending his freshman year at Notre Dame, was a bit of a wild card. Bullard spent his first few months with the Vols working at tackle and center to address depth concerns, and was honored by coaches for his strong performance.
After becoming frustrated with his options at left guard, Dooley tried Bullard there.
”It’s his body type. He has the kind of body type that can be a good, physical guard,” Dooley said. ”He has enough range. He’s not a prototype tackle, but he has enough range to hold up in space. He’s smart and he’s tough. The first thing is the body type, and then your athleticism and your ability to bend, and your ability to think.”