"I can't even explain it," junior offensive tackle JaWuan James told a small group of Tennessee beat writers at SEC Media Days. "Every time I watch them do 7 on 7 or one-on-ones it's so exciting. I'm like 'Wow! Why can't Saturday be tomorrow?' I'm looking forward to watching them live in a game go out there and make plays."
Rogers caught 67 passes for 1,040 yards last fall. Hunter was on pace for an even bigger year until he tore an ACL. Juco All-American Patterson arrived on campus from Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College a few weeks ago and has been turning heads ever since.
That trio could combine with junior quarterback Tyler Bray to give Tennessee the most imposing passing game in college football. Still, the Vols will need a ground attack to keep defenses honest. James believes he and the other offensive linemen are ready to deliver one.
"We're starting to take ownership of the team, the running game," he said. "A lot of bad stuff happened last year but we're looking forward to correcting it this year."
Tennessee's plan in 2011 was to throw the ball to Hunter and Rogers, then run the ball when opponents spread out to stop the dynamic duo. Hunter's Game 3 injury crippled the passing game, however, and the ground game couldn't pick up the slack.
"The running game last year was a struggle," James conceded. "Week to week we tried to work at it in practice."
Developing a rushing attack was offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's No. 1 priority in spring practice, and reportedly he succeeded.
|Offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James does a video interview during SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala.|
In addition to a greater emphasis, Tennessee's ground attack should benefit from a streamlined system for the O-linemen this year.
"We've eliminated a lot of calls, man," James said. "We just want to get up to the line and play fast. That takes a lot of stress off your mind, so you can play fast."
The system isn't all that's streamlined. First-year offensive line coach Sam Pittman insisted that several blockers shed some pounds. That should give them better agility and better stamina.
"He wanted some of us to trim down so we could play faster," James said. "That's a big thing because I feel like we were slow off the ball a lot of times last year, with a lot of people not moving off the ball at the same time."
Going into his third year as a starter, James says the 2012 line bears little resemblance to the 2010 line he manned as a true freshman. Many of the faces are the same but the experience level has changed drastically. Whereas the 2010 roster featured just three starts among the entire O-line crew, the 2012 roster features 106 returning starts.
"It's a great feeling, knowing the guy on the your left and the guy on your right has been in the fire with you," James said. "It gives you confidence and it gives everybody around you confidence — Tyler, the running backs ... everybody."
James believes fans will note another change in Tennessee's blocking this fall.
"We've worked more on maintaining blocks," he said. "Last year we had some good blocks but we were only holding 'em two or three seconds. Now we're trying to stay on blocks longer."
The switch in line coaches from fiesty Harry Hiestand to the more personable Pittman could be a plus, as well.
"It's a big difference," James said. "I feel like a lot of players relate to Coach Pittman better. They're both good coaches. They both have great techniques and different ways of coaching but I feel like we're going to be pretty good with Coach Pittman."
Given how poorly Tennessee ran the ball in 2011, you have to wonder how much improvement the Vols can make in one year. James believes the answer is plenty. He's convinced the O-linemen will see to that.
"Definitely," he said. "Coach Pittman and Coach Chaney have us grinding, and we took it upon ourselves not to let what happened last year happen again."
An adequate ground game should enable Hunter, Rogers and Patterson to wreak havoc in secondaries across America this fall. James' eyes light up at the thought.
"It's amazing, man," he said. "Every day when we work out I watch those skills guys in 7 on 7. With guys like CP (Patterson), Pig (Alton Howard) and all these new guys we've got coming in, I feel like we're going to have a great team this year."
Bray speaks with reporters at SEC Media Days in the video below: