No-blindside zone

Tyler Bray proved himself to be the most valuable Vol last fall by averaging 310 passing yards per game in his five late-season starts. That means the guy who keeps Bray upright and uninjured might be the second-most valuable Vol.

Dallas Thomas, Tennessee's sophomore left tackle, understands that the responsibility of protecting Bray's blind side is paramount to any success the Big Orange might have this fall. Naturally, it's a responsibility he takes quite seriously.

"That's a big job, and I don't mind carrying the weight," Thomas said during a break in SEC Media Days. "That's what I do. I did it last year, I'll be doing it again this year and I'll do it the year after that."

Making the task more challenging is the fact that the 6-6, 190-pound Bray is not exactly Mr. Mobility. Protecting a moving target is one thing. Protecting a statue is a tougher job. Thomas concedes that this provides added pressure but says Bray helps protect himself.

"Yes and no," Thomas said. "I know what type of kid Bray is. He's going to make the quick decision . He knows what he's doing, and I trust him to get the ball away … just like he trusts me to block that defender."

Tennessee's 2010 offensive line consisted of senior Jarrod Shaw, sophomore Thomas and three freshmen. The fuzzy-cheeked blocking front struggled early but began to jell as the season wore on.

"Things changed at the beginning of November," Thomas recalled. "Once I saw that we started clicking and started moving the ball down the field, I liked the direction we were going. I can't wait for us to start getting the job done this year."

Now that Shaw is gone, Thomas is the old man of the O-line. He understands that his role has changed. He's now overseeing a group of young kids.

"What I really want them to know," he said, "is that I'll be there to carry them along so they don't fall back or don't get lost in a game or don't know what they're doing."

After spending 2010 adjusting to first-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, Tennessee's blockers think they're ahead of the game in 2011.

"We know what to expect now," Thomas said. "We know how Coach Hiestand is going to grind us."

Tennessee's offensive line should be vastly improved this fall due to one year of added maturity, added experience, added knowledge and added strength.

"I feel the maturity is going to be the most important advance," Thomas said. "When you look down the field and you see all of these coverages moving around, you've got to know what the coverage is giving away, whether the blitz is or is not coming, and if somebody walks up on the line you can't panic and think ‘Is that my guy? Yes or no?' You've got to relax."

Almost as important as the added maturity is the added strength of Tennessee's offensive linemen. Several blockers lacked the power to get an adequate push on running plays last fall, so an upgrade in that area was vital.

"That was a big goal of ours," Thomas said. "Everybody wants to get stronger because nobody wants to get pushed around so we can run the ball more. We're going to be running the ball a lot more now."

Tennessee went just 3-5 in SEC play last fall, and is not considered to be on par with East Division rivals South Carolina, Georgia and Florida in 2011. Undaunted, Thomas thinks the Vols have a chance to hang with those teams.

"I feel we can compete with anybody because it all comes down to playing the game," Thomas said. "It all goes back to basics. They've got to put their hand in the dirt, just like we've got to put our hand in the dirt. It comes down to who wants it more."

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