KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s recent pro day was filled with talented skill-position players, many of whom will be picked in the first 100 picks of the upcoming NFL draft.
It’s easy to envision the 2014 UT pro day being similarly stacked with offensive linemen.
Right tackle Ja’Wuan James is squarely on the NFL’s radar. Same for guard Zach Fulton. Rising junior Tiny Richardson could easily be heading to the NFL a year early if he has another strong campaign. Veterans Alex Bullard and James Stone could get a look as well.
That might sound like a dream scenario for new offensive line coach Don Mahoney. He has a group that he could put on cruise control and get results. That’s the last thing on his mind.
“We remind them all the time that they’re not [good enough],” said Mahoney, who is entering his seventh year as an assistant for coach Butch Jones.
“We have to play better,” he added. “[This offensive line] didn’t win enough in the past. We have to play better and play better with more depth. Last year wasn’t good enough. That’s the challenge for me. That’s the challenge for them. We have to play beyond that.”
Not that Mahoney is complaining about what he has to work with. Compared to a position such as wide receiver, there is a lot to work with in terms of overall experience and talent. The team’s most veteran unit returns 191 games of total experience and 124 starts.
Despite going through significant growing pains in 2011, this unit began to turn a corner in 2012. It gave up just 10 sacks last season – good for fifth in the nation. After leading a dismal rushing attack in 2011, the offensive line paved the way for a respectable 160.3 rushing yard per game in last year’s 5-7 campaign.
LT: Tiny Richardson (JR; 6-6, 330)
LG: Alex Bullard (SR; 6-2, 300)
C: James Stone (SR; 6-3, 300)
RG: Zach Fulton (SR; 6-5, 320)
RT: Ja'Wuan James (SR; 6-6, 320)
KEY RESERVES: G Marcus Jackson; G/T Kyler Kerbyson; C Mack Crowder
"I feel like it's very important, just for ourselves,” James said of the importance of the offensive line playing even better than 2012. “This is our last year. We've been working for a long time towards this to see it perfected and also just to help our offense. A lot of [skill players] left last year so we have to pick up the slack for our offense."
And while Mahoney challenges Tennessee’s current starting five to reach beyond 2012, he must also work on building depth for 2013 and beyond. Talent can easily mean departure from college football. He’s guaranteed to lose James, Fulton, Stone and Bullard after next season. An early departure from Richardson could mean a complete overhaul of the group.
That’s where the next wave comes into play. That consists of the likes of Kyler Kerbyson, Mack Crowder, Alan Posey, Marcus Jackson and Marques Pair. Other than three incoming freshmen this summer, that could be all that’s left on scholarship after next season.
Crowder, in particular, has stood out to Mahoney this spring.
“He's had a heck of an offseason of lifting and training and so forth,” said Mahoney. “And to this point in spring ball has really stepped up his play. I'm pleased with the progress he's making. The way he's attacking the days mentally, the way he's attacking the practices physically.”
Mahoney will need that type of effort and intensity from his entire unit – starters and reserves – to get the most out of his star-studded 2013 group and build a foundation for the future. He likes what he sees so far. Expect him to keep wanting more, though.
“We've got to, each and every day, demand more and more and you know what? The players are responding,” he said. “It's a group that responds to the challenges put before them, to the demands that are put before them, in terms of us and our expectations of practice."
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga