Firing out faster

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How a Tennessee offensive line that returned nine of its top 10 players from 2010 regressed in 2011 is a mystery that ranks up there with the disappearances of Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa.

Still, one Vol who started for both the 2010 and 2011 lines believes he may have the answer: The blockers were tentative last season.

"Last year we were a little slow, maybe thinking too much on calls and stuff like that," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said this week. "Our goal (this fall) is to play a lot faster."

James was one of three freshmen on a 2010 Vol O-line that featured five new starters. Despite glaring youth and inexperience, the three rookies performed well enough to suggest the blocking front would take a quantum leap in 2011. It didn't. If anything, it got worse instead of better.

Now that the 2010 freshmen have two years' experience at the college level, however, James believes they are doing the right things more instinctively.

Offensive line coach Sam Pittman observes during his first spring at Tennessee.
(Danny Parker/
"Definitely," he said. "Guys used to go up to the line and think about stuff. Now I feel like it's just about the play. It should be second nature to us."

Offensive linemen have an advantage over defensive linemen in that the former know the design of each play. If the O-lineman is slow off the ball, however, this advantage is lost. After two spring practices James sees Tennessee's blockers coming off the ball much quicker than they did last fall.

"We're going to play a lot faster," he said. "That's what we're focusing on."

James, Zach Fulton and James Stone started as freshmen on the 2010 O-line because, basically, there was no one else. That changed in 2011 when two talented newcomers, Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard and freshman Marcus Jackson, cracked the starting lineup. With three players joining the mix after redshirting as freshmen last fall — Kyler Kerbyson, Alan Posey, Mack Crowder — the competition for jobs in Tennessee's blocking front is the most intense it has been in a long time.

"There's a lot of competition," James said. "Everybody's pushing each other, and that's going to make us better."

Now that Sam Pittman has replaced Harry Hiestand as line coach, every blocker has a clean slate. The fact a guy started under Hiestand carries no weight whatsoever. In other words, the O-line outlook is wide open.

"Definitely," James said. "We don't have a depth chart. We just have groups."

The Vols may not have a depth chart but they certainly have a goal: To significantly upgrade a rushing attack that ranked dead last among the 12 SEC teams last fall at 90.1 yards per game. Head coach Derek Dooley is on record saying most of spring practice will be devoted to becoming more physical and productive in the ground game. James finds such talk exciting.

"Oh, definitely. We always need to work on the run game," he said. "We need to do way better than we did last year. As we're working now, we're definitely going to be way better than we were last year."

Tennessee fans, having heard this promise before, are skeptical. Why should they believe offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's ground attack will be any better than last fall?

"Just because of the mindset we're focusing so much on it," James said. "We all believe in the techniques Coach Pittman is teaching us and the stuff Coach Chaney is preaching to us. We're all buying in."

Alex Bullard

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