'Not good enough'

You'll never find better coverage of Vol football than right here at InsideTennessee. Check out this story on the Big Orange's most experienced position:

Tennessee fans are encouraged that the Vols return six offensive linemen who have combined for 123 career starts. Offensive line coach Don Mahoney is encouraged, too.

Tennessee fans are pleased that those six players helped Tennessee average 36.2 points and 475.9 yards per game last season. Mahoney is pleased, too.

Tennessee fans are convinced the return of all those linemen who helped gain all of those yards in 2012 means the Vols will have a dominant blocking front in 2013. Well, Mahoney isn't ready to make that leap. If the blocking was so great last fall, he wonders, why did the team finish 5-7?

When asked for the umpteenth time this spring about all of the returning starters whose blocking produced all of those yards and points last fall, Mahoney rolled his eyes.

"We've got to play better," he said. "We didn't win enough in the past, so we've got to play better. Yes, it is experienced but since we got here it (talk) has been how many guys are back. We do (have veterans) and they're solid players, but they've got to play better than they did a year ago.

"Last year wasn't good enough. That's the challenge for me. That's the challenge for them. I hit it home to them every chance I get: You know what? It wasn't good enough. We've got to play beyond that. We've got to work that much harder to do things better than we did a year ago."

Understandably, most fans blame last season's losing record on a defense that allowed 35.7 points per game. While telling Vol defenders how bad they are, those same fans have been telling the offensive linemen how good they are.

So, how does Mahoney plan to combat that?

"We remind them that they're not," he said. "It's just a reality. Last year is last year, and it wasn't good enough. It just wasn't. It needs to be better."

Apparently, Mahoney is preaching to the choir. His offensive linemen aren't satisfied with 5-7 records, either, so they're eager to take any steps necessary in order to get better.

Expect to see a much lighter version of guard Marcus Jackson from the one seen in 2012.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
"The thing I really enjoy about this group: They like to be challenged," Mahoney said. "They're not satisfied. My emphasis to them is: Every day is a chance for us to get better, and it wasn't good enough (last year). We've got to keep working to be as good as we can be, individually and collectively as a unit."

One thing Tennessee's linemen are doing in an effort to get better is lose weight. Senior guard Zach Fulton has dropped 20 pounds and senior center James Stone 15. Senior tackle Ja'Wuan James, junior tackle Antonio Richardson, senior guard Alex Bullard and junior guard Marcus Jackson have shed roughly 10 pounds each.

"The better in shape we are, the more physical we're going to be able to play," Mahoney said. "We still aren't there but trimming down some of that weight they were carrying has helped them to be more productive in practice."

With less weight to carry around, Tennessee's linemen should experience improved stamina come fall.

"We watch the film — from the beginning of practice to the end — and you can see towards the end that once you get tired your technique is not as good as it needs to be," Mahoney said. "Your pad level, your landmarks — all of the fine detail things we stress — are lacking just because you're out of shape."

With Tennessee planning to play a hurry-up offense, Vol linemen project to be on the field for more snaps this fall than they were last fall. More snaps obviously requires more stamina.

"We've got to be strong mentally and physically with what we do," Mahoney said. "Losing that weight has benefited."

With decreased weight comes increased mobility. That means Tennessee's linemen should be better able to block for screen passes and power sweeps.

"Absolutely," Mahoney said. "As we're moving forward we've installed more in our offense. Once we come back (from spring break) we'll throw more at 'em. Understand this: We aren't even close to where we want to be in the playbook because we have yet to master the fine details of what we have so far."

Although Tennessee's top six blockers have considerable experience, there is no dependable depth behind them.

"I've said that from Day One: Our depth has got to improve," Mahoney said. "We do have a solid corps of returnees but the guys backing up need to step up and be solid in the event something happens and 'the next guy in' we don't blink about it."

Even with depth lacking, Tennessee appears to have an offensive line capable of putting up some big numbers. Mahoney isn't concerned with big numbers, however.

"It's not about what was done statistically," he said. "That's what drives me nuts, especially as an offensive line. There's only one stat that matters, and that's winning ... bottom line.

"The bottom line is that it's about winning. That's it. It doesn't matter how many yards, how many sacks or this or that. At the end of the day it's 'Let's go and win ball games, period.' They get it. They understand that's right."

Take a look at some of InsideTennessee's footage of Mahoney's group at work:

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