KNOXVILLE – Tennessee opens spring practice begins on Saturday. It will be the first glimpse of coach Butch Jones’ initial UT squad and several positions will be up for grabs, starting in the first practice.
Nooga.com will preview each position group leading up to the first practice on March 9.
Gone: Dallas Thomas (graduation), Darin Gooch (graduation), Carson Anderson (graduation)
Returning: Ja’Wuan James (SR), Zach Fulton (SR), Alex Bullard (SR), James Stone (SR), Tiny Richardson (JR), Marcus Jackson (JR), Marques Pair (JR), Alan Posey (SO), Mack Crowder (SO), Kyler Kerbyson (SO)
Arriving in summer: Austin Sanders (3-star), Dylan Wiesman (3-star), Brett Kendrick (3-star)
Injuries: Richardson had shoulder surgery over the offseason.
Outlook: New offensive line coach Don Mahoney must have thought he stumbled into a gold mine when he first heard of the experience and talent on Tennessee’s offensive line.
Dallas Thomas will certainly be missed, but the group returns over 100 total starts and is loaded with future potential NFL players. The tackle combination of Ja’Wuan James and Tiny Richardson will be among the best in the nation. Though only a junior, Richardson is already being touted as one of the top draft-eligible tackles for the 2014 draft.
Veteran guard Zach Fulton flirted with the NFL before opting to return for his senior season. Center James Stone settled in as a reliable starter last year. Junior Marcus Jackson and senior Alex Bullard also have plenty of starts under their belt and could be in competition for the final starting slot.
The experience is there, and the talent began to show last year. After struggling through the worst rushing offense in school history in 2011, the offensive line began paving some holes in 2012 – helping the Vols to an average of 160.3 rushing yards per game. And while that area was improved, it was the pass blocking that was truly impressive. The Vols finished fifth in the nation with an average of just .67 sacks given up per game.
The top priority for this spring is implementing coach Butch Jones’ new scheme to a group that is on its third offensive line coach in three years. But looking out for the future has to be on Mahoney’s mind as well. This group goes from stacked to slim after 2013 with the graduation of the four seniors and the likely early exit of Richardson.
That’s why it will also be a big spring for Kyler Kerbyson, Mack Crowder and Alan Posey – three third-year players who will likely be running with the second unit this spring, but could be starters by default in 2014. Junior Marques Pair will also need to convince coaches he can be part of the plan.
Quotable: Mahoney on his unit:
“There are guys who have played a lot of football together and they have been through a lot. . We have to develop depth. We have to have some guys step up and play at an even higher level than they did last year. That is one of the challenges that I am going to present to them.”
By the numbers:
. James: 37 career games (37 starts)
. Fulton: 35 career games (28 starts)
. Stone: 33 career games (27 starts)
. Bullard: 27 career games (15 starts) *three games were at Notre Dame
. Richardson: 24 career games (12 starts)
. Jackson: 24 career games (5 starts)
. Kerbyson: 7 career games
. Crowder: 2 career games
. Posey: 1 career game
. Pair: 1 career game
. Total games of experience returning: 191
. Total starts returning: 124
Projected initial spring depth chart: James (RT) and Richardson (LT) have the two tackle spots pretty much locked down. Zach Fulton will be the likely starter at right guard. James Stone is projected to start at center. Pencil Bullard in as a starter at the other guard spot, but Jackson is right there with him. Pair, Kerbyson, Posey, Crowder and Jackson or Bullard will likely make up the second line.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga