And, yes, he has noticed a difference. He and fellow first-teamers James Stone (center) and Zach Fulton (right guard) had zero starts among them when the 2010 season began. The same trio has a combined 58 starts — 25 by James, 18 by Fulton, 15 by Stone — heading into 2012. That's why James believes the '12 line is light-years ahead of the '10 line.
"It's a great feeling knowing the guy to the left and right of you has been through it, and he's been through it with you," James said. "I've been playing next to Zach for I don't know how many games.
"As a group, I feel we're going to do a lot better because we know each other, we've been around each other, and we're looking forward to going out there and showing everyone what we can do."
Due to added experience and maturity, James believes he is twice the player he was two years ago.
"I definitely feel like I've learned a lot from all of these coaches. And my confidence is better," he said. "My freshman year I was going out there not knowing what to expect, just playing. Now I know defenses. The experience has helped me and I feel more confident now.
|James Stone regained his starting center job for the 2012 season.|
"After two years in the same program, Coach Mac (strength coach Ron McKeefery) has gotten us a lot bigger and a lot stronger," James said. "He's got us prepared for this season. I've got tons more strength than I had coming out of high school, and I'm looking forward to using it. Since I've been here I think I've gone up over 100 pounds in my bench press."
Counting left guard Dallas Thomas (25 starts), plus reserves Alex Bullard (12), Darin Gooch (6) and Marcus Jackson (5), Tennessee's offensive line corps features 106 returning starts. First-year line coach Sam Pittman says that figure would be more meaningful, however, if all of those starts had come in the same positions and in unison.
"Experience is a big deal, especially up front," he said. "Here's when it's good, though: If you can lock guys into one spot, then it's good. If you've got 20 starts at right tackle and one at left tackle, you've got to play by somebody for a period of time before you understand it."
After starting 25 games at left tackle, Thomas will be starting at left guard this fall. Stone, who has four career starts at left guard and practiced there all spring, is back at center for the first time since Game 6 of 2011. Meanwhile, sophomore left tackle Antonio Richardson will be starting for the first time at any position on the collegiate level.
"Obviously, it's great that we have that kind of returning starts but we've got to lock 'em in to one spot," Pittman said. "A lot of those starts came with somebody getting hurt and now you move a right tackle to left guard. We've got to place 'em where they need to be, then let's get going."
Richardson isn't the only wild card in Tennessee's offensive line. A natural lefty, Stone struggled so mightily with right-handed shotgun snaps last fall that he lost his starting job at midseason. Apparently, he will make direct snaps right-handed as a concession to quarterback Tyler Bray this fall but will make shotgun snaps left-handed.
"If you're going to shotgun snap, you're going to snap with the hand you can (best) shotgun snap, period," Pittman said. "If the quarterback wants it right-handed from underneath, you're going to give it to him that way. But in the shotgun snap, you're going to snap it the way you can get the quarterback the ball."