KNOXVILLE – It shouldn’t be too surprising to anybody who has followed UT recently that Alex Bullard is being used in somewhat of a utility role this spring on the offensive line.
The redshirt senior, who came to UT via transfer from Notre Dame after the 2010 season, has already been a nomad up front for the Vols.
After starting the first six games at left guard in 2011, he made his career debut as a center at Alabama in the seventh game and started there for the rest of the season. He saw time at guard and tackle in 2012, but when tight end depth got thin, he donned No. 89 and was used as a blocking tight end.
So what can’t he do?
“Quarterback or running back,” the 6-2, 300-pound Bullard joked. “But I can play anything that puts their hand down.”
He’s been focusing on the left side of the line this spring. He’s currently the favorite in the competition with Marcus Jackson to be the first-team left guard, but Bullard is also filling in some at left tackle with Tiny Richardson (shoulder) being held out of contact this spring.
The depth chart for an offensive line is rarely simple, though. An injury to the first-team right guard doesn’t necessarily mean the second-stringer directly behind him will be put in the game. It’s usually more of a shuffling act to get the best five on the field at a given time.
Bullard’s flexibility gives UT options. If he starts at left guard, an injury to the center, left tackle, right guard or right tackle means he could slide over to any of those spots and Jackson can take his spot. If Jackson starts, Bullard will be ready to plug in at any of the five spots.
“Anywhere they need me, I’m comfortable,” he said. “That’s my job – to be the swing man in case a certain situation goes down, we have to have more depth. I’m that guy that can move around.”
His team-first mentality has been noticed by the head coach and others.
“Alex has done a great job,” coach Butch Jones said. “He is one of those individuals that just comes to work every day. He doesn’t care where he plays. He loves football, he continues to get better and better and progress.”
But even though Bullard is willing to play wherever, there’s still the matter of the open competition for the starting left guard job. Jackson, ranked the sixth-best offensive guard in the nation by ESPN coming out Vero Beach (Fla.) High School in 2010, has 24 career games under his belt, including five starts.
He’s almost certain to be a key member of the offensive line in 2014 after the mass exodus coming after 2013, but he’s enjoying the process of competing for a spot for this coming season.
“Competing is not really that big of a deal for me,” Jackson said. “I think it’s kind of fun. Every day I know I have to come with a good mindset. I consider it a challenge. Knowing every snap I have to be on to 110 percent to get better every day.”
Offensive line is one of a few spots on the team where there are more quality options than there are starting roles. That’s a good problem to have and something Jones hopes to see more of across the board in the coming years.
“Competition is healthy,” Jones said. “And I think [Bullard and Jackson] are pushing each other and also we are developing depth. We are developing number six and that is important.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga