James Stone started the final five games of 2010 as a true freshman, then spent spring practice trying to convert from a left-handed snapper to a right-handed snapper. While he was converting, Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard made such a strong bid to take the job that Stone began working some at guard and tackle.
Speaking at a Big Orange Caravan stop in Greeneville earlier today, Chaney conceded that the versatility of Stone and Bullard gives Tennessee tremendous flexibility along the blocking front for 2011.
"We know, intellectually, that Alex and James can play all five positions in the offensive line," the coordinator said. "We've got to secure that center position, so initially we'll see Alex and James battle for that spot, then we'll be able to move either one of them to any position we'd like to."
Stone did reasonably well snapping left-handed last fall but the coaches insisted he learn to snap right-handed in the spring because the quarterback must adjust significantly to the different rotation of a left-handed snap.
"It makes a world of difference," Chaney said. "In practice (last fall) we were bobbling snaps all the time, so we went into that Memphis game (Stone's first as the No. 1 center) not sure what we were going to get."
At this point Caravan emcee and "Voice of the Vols" Bob Kesling asked Chaney to confirm that Stone has been eating right-handed, writing right-handed and doing everything else right-handed that he formerly did left-handed.
"That is correct," Chaney said. "He is snapping right-handed."
"And it's working out ... " Kesling said.
"I don't know that," Chaney quipped. "Don't ask me loaded questions."
The return of seven offensive linemen who started at least five times each in 2010, plus the availability of redshirt freshman Marques Pair and Bullard, creates a bright outlook for Tennessee's 2011 blocking front. Chaney is especially encouraged by the addition of Bullard, noting: "Really, of all the spring, probably the most pleasurable experience I had was dealing with Alex. It's an awesome situation and we fell right into it."
An in-state product from Franklin, Bullard transferred from Notre Dame to Tennessee to be closer to his family following the death of his father. The NCAA recently granted him a transfer waiver allowing him to play immediately for the Vols, instead of sitting out a year.
"He's a talented young man, and we're tickled to get him," Chaney said. "I think it's a wise move by the NCAA to allow these young men who have some family difficulties to be able to move around."
Tennessee's 2011 offensive line may not be the best in program history this fall but it will be one of the most physically imposing. The projected starters are JaWuan James (6-6, 330) and Dallas Thomas (6-3, 301) at tackle, Zach Fulton (6-5, 334) and either JerQuari Schofield (6-6, 333) or freshman Marcus Jackson (6-2, 326) at guard, with either Stone (6-3, 308) or Bullard (6-3, 309) at center.
Chaney summed it up this way:
"When you walk out for the first game this upcoming season and see those guys warming up, you think 'Boy, they look like they belong' because you have to start with stature.
"I think (New England Patriots head coach) Bill Belichick said it best: 'You can't build your team on exceptions.' There might be an outstanding 6-foot lineman somewhere but he's an exception to the rule, so you don't want to build your team on that. We're trying to get kids with the right stature to give us a chance to be successful."