Weakness to strength

In just 12 months the offensive line has gone from the weakest link on Tennessee's football team to the strongest link. The blockers who took their lumps in 2010 will be giving the lumps in 2011.

First-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand was stunned one year ago when he inherited a blocking front that had to be rebuilt from scratch after losing all five starters from 2009. Somehow he molded three true freshmen, a sophomore and an unproven senior with three career starts among them into a surprisingly competent line.

By comparison, this spring's O-line contingent boasts a half-dozen guys who combined for 50 starts last fall. All six have considerably more heft, strength, experience, knowledge and confidence than they did 12 months ago.

"It's progress because the guys have experience, so they know what to expect," Hiestand said. "They understand why we're so demanding that they do things a certain way and how important the details are, so that's better."

With four of last fall's five starters returning, Hiestand hoped to have exceptional continuity this spring. That won't be the case, however. First-team right tackle Ja'Wuan James is missing spring practice due to mononucleosis.

"That's a pain in the neck," Hiestand said. "It's a shame. But there's nothing we can do.... He understands what we want from him. He's in tune. He's in the meetings and doing everything he can do mentally. That's about all we can do right now."

Even with James sidelined, Hiestand has far more talent and depth at his disposal in 2011 than he did in 2010.

"It's going in the right direction, that's for sure," the Vol aide said. "It's a lot different than the first spring. That's what you expect - incremental increases in the depth and the quality of the players. You just keep going forward."

James was so impressive as a mid-term freshman last spring that he wound up starting all 13 games in 2010. Now another mid-term freshman reportedly is turning heads this spring. That would be Marcus Jackson, a rugged guard from Vero Beach, Fla.

"He's doing well," Hiestand said. "The guy's been in college three months but he's stepped in here and hasn't shied away from anything. He's giving good effort and he's learning on the run."

At 6-2 and 337 pounds, Jackson already appears to have the heft and strength required of a college lineman.

"Yeah, he's a big, strong, young guy, and we knew that coming in," Hiestand said. "He's got good power and he loves football. He's a fun guy to have, and we're glad he's here."

Center Mack Crowder is another mid-term freshman who is getting a head start this spring. At 6-2 and 272 pounds, though, he may need to add more bulk and strength before he's ready for the rigors of SEC play.

"Mack's a ball player, a competitor, a fighter," Hiestand said. "He's another young guy who's been here three months. He doesn't have quite the stature of Marcus at this point but, through weight training and the offseason work, he'll progress real well. We're happy with him."

In addition to James, Tennessee returns five more players who started games last fall. Junior Dallas Thomas (6-5, 299) started all 13 games at left tackle. Junior Darin Gooch (6-2, 299) started six games at center. James Stone (6-3, 307) started the last five games at center, while fellow sophomores Zach Fulton (6-5, 334) and JerQuari Schofield (6-6, 345) started five games each at guard.

The Vols also expect big things from Marques Pair (6-5, 299), who redshirted as a freshman in 2010 after arriving as a 280-pounder last August. Blessed with exceptionally quick feet, he'll vie for a starting job as soon as he is fully recovered from last winter's ACL surgery.

"He struggled during the season but the last part of the season he really made progress," Hiestand said. "He just needs to be in there (practicing). He's an athlete."

The X Factor on the offensive line is Alex Bullard. Originally from Franklin, the 6-2, 304-pound transfer from Notre Dame has petitioned the NCAA for immediate eligibility as a hardship case because his father died last year. Bullard was a celebrated 4-star prospect in high school who has the talent to start for the Vols.

"He's a smart guy, got a real passion for the game," Hiestand said. "He's got good quickness and he plays hard. That sticks out."

The difference in Tennessee's offensive line sticks out, too. Odds are, it will stick out even more this fall.

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