"Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul" is a quaint Southern expression that refers to weakening one area to try and strengthen another area. That's essentially what Tennessee's head football coach did during the 2014 regular season.
Given all of the position changes Butch Jones made, several Vols probably showed up for practice some afternoons wondering “Where will I line up today?”
Here’s a recap of the personnel moves that have taken place already this year:
-Freshman Coleman Thomas moved from center to right tackle and back to center.
-Junior Kyler Kerbyson moved from right guard to left tackle and played one game at left guard.
-Freshman Jashon Robertson moved from defensive tackle to offensive guard.
-Senior Jacob Gilliam moved from left offensive tackle to right tackle.
-Sophomore Dylan Wiesman moved from guard to center.
-Senior Jordan Williams moved from defensive end to tackle.
-Freshman Dimarya Mixon moved from defensive end to tackle.
-Redshirt freshman Kendal Vickers moved from defensive end to tackle.
-Sophomore Danny O’Brien moved from tackle to nose tackle.
-Junior Curt Maggitt moved from full-time outside linebacker to part-time defensive end.
-Sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin moved from safety to linebacker.
-Freshman Elliott Berry moved from safety to linebacker.
-Freshman Cortez McDowell moved from safety to linebacker.
-Senior Justin Coleman moved from cornerback to nickel back.
Tennessee’s need in many areas was so severe that several transplants wound up being first-teamers at their new positions.
After starting the first two games at right tackle, Kerbyson started nine times at left tackle and one time (because of an injury to Marcus Jackson) at left guard. Thomas started five games at right tackle as a true freshman and converted defender Robertson started every game at right guard as a true freshman.
Gilliam started the opener at left tackle, missed six games with a torn ACL, then started the last five games at right tackle. Wiesman started Games 11 and 12 at center. Williams started all 12 games at defensive tackle and O’Brien 11 of 12 at nose tackle. Reeves-Maybin started all 12 at weakside linebacker. Maggitt never started at defensive end but spent roughly half of his snaps there. Coleman started seven games at his new outpost (nickel back) and five at his old spot (cornerback).
Interestingly enough, three of the Vols who started Game 12 at Vanderbilt – Kerbyson, Wiesman, Robertson – were playing different positions in Game 1. Of the three Wiesman had the most difficult transition.
“Moving to center obviously is very challenging and difficult, No. 1 because of the snap,” offensive line coach Don Mahoney told InsideTennessee. “That’s what people don’t understand: The importance of the snap and the timing of it is something people may think is very simple. It’s a very difficult thing. It’s a timing thing and it’s a location thing.
“If you’ve got a quarterback that’s reading the secondary and the ball’s off the mark his eyes have to go to that (securing the snap), then come back to find and read the defense. That’s very tough. The center position is very tough. Guys yell ‘Snap! Snap! Snap!’ when a snap is off the mark in practice. I laugh and tell ‘em, ‘Yeah, get in there (at center) and try it.’ It’s difficult. The move from tackle to guard isn’t as hard. The move from guard to center is very tough.”
So is the move from defensive line to offensive line but that didn’t stop Robertson from making it a week into preseason drills. The rugged freshman wound up starting all 12 games at right guard, although he played with more aggression than technique at times.
“I say this carefully, but it’s more disciplined (playing offensive line versus defensive line),” Mahoney said. “I want them to be relentless but there’s a lot of technique that’s involved with footwork, hands and all of that. There’s a lot of (technical issues) related to the play call, the run, the pass, the time, the combinations. The number of factors involved on a given play can be really demanding.”
Robertson has the build and tenacity of a nose tackle, so learning to rely on brain more than brawn has been an ongoing struggle.
“With Jashon’s temperament, he has to pull it back a little bit to be under control as he’s executing a block,” Mahoney said. “There’s a lot that goes with that – channeling the aggression and stuff so that your technique’s where we want it to be.”
A natural guard, Kerbyson lacks the preferred height and quickness to protect the quarterback’s blind side at left tackle. When Gilliam suffered a Game 1 ACL tear, however, Kerbyson’s experience made him the best option to fill the void. He has performed reasonably well but may be moving back to guard as a senior in 2015.
Stripling’s defensive line has undergone almost as much shifting as the offensive line. The key shift was the move of Jordan Williams from end to tackle, a transition that required a 30-pound weight gain (255 to 285).
“Jordan’s been outstanding,” Stripling said. “It’s probably a simpler game inside (at tackle) but it’s much more physically demanding. I think that’s the key thing – the physicality.”
Mixon also made the move from end to tackle, seeing significant backup action the second half of the season as a true freshman.
“That was a growing experience for him,” Stripling said. “He’s much more comfortable (than in September). Now we’re all starting to speak the same language and understanding the concepts. A freshman will advance much quicker his second year.
“Kendall Vickers is another end who has moved to tackle,” Stripling added. “That’s what we prefer to do — take athletic guys and get ‘em bigger and stronger in our outstanding conditioning program. That’s what we’re looking for — athleticism.”
Maggitt’s transition from full-time outside linebacker to a hybrid OLB/end position paid huge dividends; he led the Vols with 11 sacks. The move appeared seamless but Stripling said going from linebacker to end involves a lot more than simply moving two steps closer to the line of scrimmage and putting one hand in the dirt.
“The linebacker obviously has a much different world than a defensive end,” the line coach said. “The ability to handle both of them is what makes Curt great. He’s very intelligent. He has great attention to detail. He loves to study and talk football, so that’s a great advantage for Curt.”
Interestingly enough, Stripling downplayed the move of O’Brien from tackle to nose tackle.
“We cross-train those guys,” the line coach explained, “so they should be able to play both positions. That’s not that big a deal.”
"That’s what we prefer to do — take athletic guys and get ‘em bigger and stronger in our outstanding conditioning program. That’s what we’re looking for — athleticism." —Steve Stripling
Moving from cornerback to nickel back isn’t a big deal, either, apparently. After three years at the former Justin Coleman’s move to the latter went off without a hitch. Playing roughly half of his snaps at nickel and half at corner, he wound up leading the 2014 Vols with four interceptions.
The transformation from safety to linebacker is a common one in Vol annals – Al Wilson being the most noteworthy example. After some struggles initially, Reeves-Maybin’s transition really took off. He wound up with 88 stops in his first full season at linebacker.
“Maybin’s really cerebral and smart,” linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen told InsideTennessee. “I look at Maybin as a rookie because this is his first year starting at linebacker.”
Maybin actually began the switch from safety to linebacker in November of 2013. The transition was not a smooth one at first.
“Last year he struggled with concepts but now it all makes sense to him,” Thigpen said. “It’ll happen the same way with McDowell and Berry.”
Maybin’s progress from Year 1 to Year 2 at linebacker was mind-boggling, yet Thigpen believes McDowell and Berry will show similar improvement from this fall to next.
“Playing some this year is really going to help McDowell and Berry because they get in there and see all of the different ways teams are playing you, then they’re making those adjustments,” the Vol aide said. “It’s going to be a lot easier for them next year.”
Except for Jacob Gilliam, Jordan Williams and Justin Coleman, all of the Vols who changed positions in 2014 will be back for 2015. Having a full year’s experience at their new outposts should help tremendously next fall.
“Experience is the best developer,” offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. “That may seem pretty mundane but the reality is that guys improve in the weight room, on the practice field and in the meeting room.
“Guys improve most when they get game reps in a competitive atmosphere. There is no better way to develop a guy than to play him, and we’ve played a lot of guys this year at a lot of positions. That will benefit them when it comes to their long-term development.”