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

corps.

”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

goal.

”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

depend on.”

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

coaches.

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

that.”

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

quarterback.

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

message.

”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.”