With the entire lineup returning for a second season under Harry Hiestand, Big Orange Country expected to see gaping holes for ballcarriers. That rarely happened and the Volunteers wound up 116th in the country and gained just 2.76 yards per attempt.
The primary objective this spring has been to improve the rushing attack in Knoxville.
"At first we felt pressure, but it's good pressure to have just so we can work hard," right tackle JaWuan James said after Saturday's scrimmage. "We've been thinking about it and talking about it all offseason."
Looking at the statistics from the action inside Neyland Stadium to round up the third week of spring drills, it looks like the Vols are starting to turn the corner.
First-year offensive line coach Sam Pittman came over from North Carolina over the winter. His school of thought on how to teach concepts are dissimilar from Hiestand's, whether it's the same message or not.
"I believe that learning is all about the teacher," Pittman said. "If I can convince them to think that what they're learning is easy, then they think it's easy. It really is that way.
|The Vols are starting to get used to the teachings of first-year offensive line coach Sam Pittman.|
James admitted it was "different" the first week this spring, but the line is buying into the concepts and learning.
"He's really just trying to lessen the calls down so we can play fast," said James, who thinks the whole front must work harder on finishing blocks.
Competing at the right guard spot are Zach Fulton and James Stone, who have 34 starts split evenly between them. Although left tackle Antonio Richardson didn't start a game his freshman campaign, left guard Dallas Thomas has the experience of 25 starts on his résumé. Behind Thomas is former Under Armour All-American Marcus Jackson, who started five games as a true freshman. Looking inward, Alex Bullard was in the lineup all 12 games his first season in Knoxville.
"It's good to know you have depth and you have a lot of guys that have been in there and played in the fire just in case something bad happens," said James, who's started all 25 games since he stepped foot on campus.
Tennessee didn't sign a single O-lineman in the Class of 2012, but with Thomas being the lone senior and three players redshirted, that's not a major concern.
"I'm really good with what we have on this football team," Pittman said. "Obviously we're going to have to get some more guys but we're really good. The university has recruited very well. So, we're fine right now, but obviously we're going to need to get some guys in January or something."
Several of the "hogs" have trimmed some soft weight off their frame since last November. That has been by design, according to their position coach.
"We're trying to stay as big as we can to play as fast as we can," Pittman said. "If we're not able to move quick, then we're going to have to lose weight. We'd rather have fast feet than we would bulk. We'd like to have both, but if we have to give up one or the other, our feet has to get faster. So, that's what we've been concentrating on, which you know will make you a better run team."
Another area in which the Vol offensive front should some signs of improvement this fall is their having a better understanding of how to attack a 3-4 defensive set, thanks to UT installing the 3-4 under first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri.
"Oh yeah, that's definitely harder," James said of the 3-4. "They just disguise it better, but we're picking it up as practice is going. The first couple of days was hard, but now we're looking at safeties and stuff like that.
"I like it a lot because you're going to see it a lot during the SEC with Alabama, Georgia. It gives you a lot of looks to work against and practice against. So, it's good."
To hear coach Pittman speak further on his offensive line's progress, click play on the video below:
Antonio Richardson shared his thoughts on his progress following the action at Neyland Stadium on Saturday: