KNOXVILLE – Check just about any ranking of offensive lines in the SEC and Tennessee is certain to be at or near the top heading into 2013.
That makes sense. It’s a group that returns six players who have starting experience and 191 total games worth of experience (124 of those starting).
Several on this unit have played together since 2010 and it has improved statistically every year. Few debate that it is the strength of the team. And while too much experience and talent is a problem nearly any position coach would like to have, there are still issues UT offensive Don Mahoney must deal with, such as complacency setting in for the highly-touted group.
“We had a heart-to-heart when the SEC preseason stuff came out and I told them that you’re not nearly as high on people’s lists as you think you are,” said Mahoney, who is entering his seventh year as coach Butch Jones’ offensive line coach.
Added offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian: “They work hard. Coach [Butch] Jones makes sure that nobody has that sense of entitlement."
Mahoney reminded his players that while the group might receive some accolades, individually, nobody has proven to be the best at their position. Despite having multiple NFL prospects on the line, none were voted first-team All-SEC this preseason.
He also said it’s a group that hasn’t always been as physical in the run game as its capable of. The Vols finished a respectable, but not impressive, 61st in the nation in rushing in 2012. That was a huge improvement over 2011’s disastrous effort on the ground, but still not the numbers generally associated with a dominant offensive front.
Despite Mahoney’s challenge to be more physical, the offensive line is still the crutch that a rehabilitating offense will rely on as it not only tries to replace a vast majority of its passing production from 2012, but also learns a new system.
“They’re the veteran group,” Bajakian said. “They’re the ones that we go to when we need leadership. I like their mentality. What I need from them is to step up and be that source of energy that we’re looking for.
“It helps to have a veteran group like that that has a lot of game experience. I think with a new quarterback and new skill players, you always want veteran guys around.”
Mahoney feels like he has seven guys – Tiny Richardson, James Stone, Alex Bullard, Zach Fulton, Ja’Wuan James, Mack Crowder and Marcus Jackson – that he feels good about at this point, so there’s some depth, but there’s always the need for more when playing in the deepest and most physical conference in college football.
“Not where it needs to be,” Mahoney said of the depth. “Still not there. Obviously the incoming freshmen have done some good things, but we don’t want to depend on incoming freshmen. I’m pleased with Marcus Jackson and Mack Crowder, but the other [backups] need to step it up. I’m going to keep putting pressure on them. It’s still early in camp, but the clock is ticking.”
Injury update: Freshman wide receiver Josh Smith was the only new injured player. He worked on the side with trainers during the open portion of practice. Jones didn’t address the media on Tuesday, so there should be an update on Smith, if needed, Wednesday.
Safeties LaDarrell McNeil and Byron Moore joined linebacker Justin King in some light running drills on the side during the open portion of practice. None of their injuries are considered serious at this point.
Linebackers Christian Harris (knee) and Curt Maggitt (recovering from torn ACL) both practiced, but in green, non-contact jerseys on Tuesday.
• The offense and defense went head-to-head during the open practice in some 1-on-1 blocking drills. The offense seemed to get the upper hand in most of the battles. Receiver Jason Croom smothered defensive back Geraldo Orta and receiver Pig Howard got the best of corner Jaron Toney in blocking drills.
• Devrin Young and Toney worked as the starting kick returners in Tuesday’s practice. Howard and Vincent Dallas got the second look behind them. Malik Foreman, Cameron Sutton, Riyahd Jones, Young and Jacob Carter were all getting work at punt returner.
• Toney, Orta and newcomer walk-on Devaun Swafford are the three players who have been working at nickelback.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga