Vols aiming to have nation’s top offensive line
Tennessee’s offensive linemen savor the challenge they’re facing
and the attention they’re receiving.
The Volunteers return four starters from a line that allowed
only eight sacks last season. Because Tennessee lacks star power at
the skill positions, offensive tackles Antonio ”Tiny” Richardson
and Ja’Wuan James rank alongside linebacker A.J. Johnson as the
Volunteers’ most recognizable names.
Richardson and James are part of the line that leads an offense
without much experience anywhere else. The Vols have a new starting
quarterback and must replace first-round draft pick Cordarrelle
Patterson and second-round selection Justin Hunter in the receiving
”It’s a lot of responsibility, but the biggest thing is there’s
not any pressure,” Richardson said. ”We’ve been together so long,
the cohesiveness is there.”
Richardson, a junior, is the line’s lone non-senior starter and
a potential first-round draft pick. James has started every game
since he arrived on campus. Center James Stone has 27 career
starts. Guard Zach Fulton has started 29 games. Alex Bullard, a
Notre Dame transfer who started 12 games in 2011 and primarily
worked as a reserve last year, replaces Miami Dolphins third-round
draft pick Dallas Thomas at the other guard spot.
Stone says they want to establish themselves as the best
offensive line in the country. Teammates believe that’s a realistic
”They look like what everyone perceives them to be,” running
back Rajion Neal said. ”They’re animals. They’re straight beasts
up front. That’s what we need, and that’s what we’re going to
North Texas and Middle Tennessee were the only Football Bowl
Subdivision teams to allow fewer sacks than Tennessee last year,
yet the Vols didn’t have a single lineman earn first-team
all-Southeastern Conference honors from the league’s media or
Tennessee’s linemen are getting much more attention now, but
additional accolades will come with more victories. The Vols open
the season Aug. 31 against Austin Peay.
”There is a chip on their shoulder with everything,” offensive
line coach Don Mahoney said. ”So much has been made about each guy
and their skill set, what they’ve done and how talented they are.
But still, in the end, as I’ve told them, it boils down to us as a
team, as a school, as a program, all those things. They get
Tennessee’s new coaching staff is finding ways to make sure this
group doesn’t get caught up in preseason acclaim. Mahoney said the
line must start creating running room as well as it protects the
His linemen have taken heed.
”It’s always great to keep the quarterback clean, but it’s only
half of the job, as everybody knows,” Stone said. ”I feel like
this year it’s an opportunity to go back there and prove we can run
block as well as pass block.”
At one point in training camp, Tennessee coach Butch Jones
complained that ”too many people want to crown” the linemen and
said they ”need to step it up.” Just a few days later, Jones was
marveling at how quickly and thoroughly they had responded to his
”They responded like I thought they would,” Jones said.
”They’re very prideful.”
Now they’re ready to respond to suggestions that Tennessee will
struggle to end a string of three straight losing seasons. The
senior linemen have endured two coaching changes and plenty of
upheaval. The one thing they haven’t experienced is a winning
season at Tennessee.
They’re ready to change that.
”We’ve got to make the most of this,” James said. ”This is
our last four months playing on the same team. It feels like we’ve
been here forever playing together. So we’re just trying to go out
there each day in practice and work on something… so we can have
no regrets at the end of the day.”