No slobber-knockers

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There was a time when SEC schools routinely signed ponderous offensive linemen and taught them to lean on defenders long enough for the tailback to run by. That time has passed.

First-year Tennessee line coach Sam Pittman is looking for guys who resemble Patriot missiles — mobile enough to redirect, yet powerful on impact.

"The bottom line is: Are they athletic?" Pittman said. "It used to be that you could take a big old slobber-knocker (to play offensive line). He can't play now ... not in this league. You have to have close to D-lineman feet to play O-line in this league. We're fortunate that we do."

Indeed. Tennessee's offensive line is one of the NCAA's most athletic and most efficient. The Vols have allowed just seven sacks in 11 games, ranking third nationally in that category. Even with Alex Bullard subbing for injured right guard Zach Fulton in Game 8, Tennessee allowed just one sack against a South Carolina defense that came in ranked No. 4 nationally with 29 sacks.

Tennessee will lose senior offensive lineman Dallas Thomas at the conclusion of the 2012 season and also may lose junior Ja'Wuan James, a three-year starter who is getting considerable attention from NFL Draft analysts. Three more quality linemen project to depart following the 2013 season — Bullard, Fulton and James Stone.

Restocking the O-line cupboard is essential but Pittman has a specific set of attributes he's looking for in high school prospects. So, what's the first thing he looks for in a potential offensive line recruit?

"How fast he plays the game," Pittman said. "I want to see if he likes the game. You can tell by watching a guy play whether he enjoys the game. Then you want to see how athletic he is because if he enjoys the game and he's athletic you can teach him a lot of things. You can teach him to be aggressive. Most of the time if they like the game they are aggressive."

Pittman also prizes an attribute that is difficult to describe but often separates the good players from the great players.

"When we turn the film on, I want to know if he's got it or not," the Vol aide said. "If he's got it, we think we can work with him."

Sophomore Antonio Richardson fits the mold of what Pittman wants from an offensive tackle.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
Make no mistake: Size matters. Tennessee's starting offensive linemen are massive. Antonio Richardson checks in at 6-feet-6 and 332 pounds. James goes 6-feet-6 and 323. Fulton measures 6-feet-5 and 324, Thomas 6-feet-5 and 310, Stone at 6-feet-3 and 300. So, if you're a 6-foot, 260-pounder don't expect an official visit.

"Obviously, we would cut some guys (from consideration) if they were 5-foot-10 or something of that nature," Pittman conceded. "But if they have the size and the physical appearance, then we want to know if they like to play the game and if they're athletic."

Tennessee has had considerable success through the years with defensive linemen who converted to the offensive line. Some noteworthy examples include Charles McRae, Fred Weary, Kevin Mays, Jason Layman and Spencer Riley. Pittman has no problem with signing guys who have experience on both sides of the line.

"Most of the guys we recruit have some D-line play in their background," he said. "It might be goal-line or something of that nature but most of them have played defense. To be honest, it really doesn't matter if they've got D-line experience."

Still, Pittman relishes the opportunity to observe an offensive line prospect performing on defense.

"I'd like to watch it if they're playing defense just to see how athletic they are, can they change direction, can they tackle a back and all of those things," the Vol aide said. "Even in high school the game has become so specific — 11 guys on offense, 11 on defense — that they're getting away from that a little bit."

One clearcut trend in offensive line play is that players get taller as you go from the middle of the line to the end of the line. A typical college line features a center in the 6-foot-2 range, guards in the 6-foot-4 range and tackles in the 6-foot-6 range. The obvious question: Why?

"It all has to do with leverage ... how low can you get," Pittman said. "I imagine that if people started playing 6-8 guys inside (nose guard and tackle) you'd put 6-8 guys inside (center and guard), too. What you're trying to do is match arm length and leverage. It's the same way on defense. Your 6-1 and 6-2 guys are inside (nose guard and tackle), and your tall guys are on the outside (end). It has a lot to do with athleticism but it also has to do with arm length and leverage."

Interestingly enough, 6-feet-6 seems to be the unofficial ceiling for linemen. Very few are taller than that.

"You don't see a lot of 6-7 guys like Garrett Reynolds of the Falcons because they're going to be playing inside against guys that are 6-1 or 6-2 and they're going to be out-leveraged," Pittman explained. "The tall guys go on offense because they have long arms and they can pass protect, keep guys' hands off their shoulders."

The oldest cliche in football is that "Low man wins." That being the case, how can a 6-foot-8 or 6-foot-9 offensive lineman ever win a one-on-one battle with a 6-foot-1 defensive lineman?

"If they can bend," Pittman said, "they can win."

Apparently, 6-foot-10, 295-pound Dan Skipper of Arvada, Colo., can bend quite well for a big guy. Tennessee accepted a verbal commitment from him last June.

Have a look at what Pittman said after practice on Haslam Field this week:


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