Offensive Line to Lead the Way
Tennessee’s veteran offensive linemen have gone from inexperienced and doubted to depended upon and praised.
The latter feels much better for the incredibly experienced group of long-time starters. That’s why they’re as excited as anyone to establish themselves against Austin Peay in the Vols’ season opener at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
“We’re very eager,” said Antonio “Tiny” Richardson, who started all 12 games for UT in 2012 and played in 12 as a freshman in 2011. “…We’re just really ready to get out there and show them what we can do. We’re not going to take any opponent lightly. Austin Peay, whoever it may be.
“We’re just going to go out there with aspirations of winning and see what we can do to win some.”
Fellow offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James, who will start on the right side, has seen more than his fair share of snaps as well. The senior has started all 37 games since he arrived in Knoxville.
“It feels like yesterday [when I was a freshman], which you know, that’s what we learn from,” James said. “I feel like that’s why we’re here right now where we are because everyone in our room just constantly works. We never get too down on ourselves. We never get too high either.
“We just come to work every day and we listen to our coaches and take everything they have to say.”
At center, senior James Stone has started 27 games. Right guard Zach Fulton and left guard Alex Bullard have started 23 and 14, respectively.
“I’m definitely proud of everybody in the room: Zach Fulton, James Stone, Tiny, myself, and even the younger guys,” James said. “I’m proud of everybody that stuck through it and kept working. We were trying to reach goals, and we were able to reach them.”
Like any offensive line, UT’s front wants to be known as a tough unit that excels in running the football. That wasn’t the case last season as the Vols’ coaches seemed intent on fielding a passing team – even when a running play seemed more prudent.
In order to produce a solid running game, UT’s offensive line will depend on senior running back Rajion Neal and junior running back Marlin Lane to gobble up yards. James said both have progressed throughout preseason camp.
“Marlin’s been doing a lot better and Rajion, but I feel like we’ve got a group of guys behind us that are going to do well this season,” James said. “So, it’s up to us to make sure they do well.”
Said Richardson, “I feel like they’ve progressed really well. Rajion, going to the sixth game of the season, he was like the leading rusher in the SEC before he hurt himself. So, I am really confident with him back there. He’s matured a lot especially.”
Both players said they believe UT’s offense will take advantage of running opportunities when they present themselves. Despite being up-tempo, first-year Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is known for a solid ground game throughout his career.
“I feel confident, and the type of formations that we are running, if they have nine in the box, we are going to hit somebody with a bubble [screen pass] or we are going to spread them out,” James said. “If there is nine in the box, then it is our job to get that nine in the box. I feel confident in all five guys and tight ends can do it.”
As for experience, that’s the end of the line for UT’s offense. Recently named starting quarterback Justin Worley and UT’s receivers have limited game time to lean on. With over 1,300 combined pounds up front, UT’s offensive line is ready to provide some much-needed stability, especially if that results in more victories than they’ve experience in the past.
“I think we are just looking forward to winning,” Richardson said. “The biggest thing is that we haven’t won much in the past few years, and it is a new era now.
“We have been focusing on our effort. That is what you will see a lot more out of this team this year is effort.”
That effort had better be there – because this 2013 offensive line will certainly be depended on.