'Weak link' talk

You need a thick body to play in Tennessee's offensive line these days. Thick skin helps, too.

Minus all five starters from the 2009 blocking front, the linemen have been hearing for weeks that they are the clearcut weak link of the 2010 team. The disparaging comments have been coming all spring - from media and fans alike - in spite of occasional practice reports citing improvement among the blockers.

Rather than feeling offended, the elder statesman of the blocking crew suggests that the insults have been bouncing off the targeted players much the way an over-inflated basketball bounces off a backboard.

"We don't pay no attention to it," fifth year senior Jarrod Shaw said this week. "We just try to get better every day. The guys we have, that's the guys we're going to roll with."

Still, the talk has to sting a little, right?

"Guys feel disrespected by it a little bit," Shaw conceded, "but we try not to pay attention to what other people say. We just try to do what we need to do."

Tennessee started four seniors in the O-line last season, so that was a group blessed with maturity and savvy. This year's group, though painfully young and inexperienced, has more overall ability.

"Young guys like JaWuan and JerQuari are very talented," Shaw said, referring to mid-term freshman JaWuan James and redshirt freshman JeerQuari Schofield. "I wish I had the talent they have because they're going to be good players.

"Last year we had some talented guys but we had very smart guys on our line, and I think that was the difference in a lot of games last year."

Incredibly, Shaw is the only offensive lineman on UT's roster that has started a college game. He started the first three outings at right tackle last September before surrendering his first-team job.

"They gave me good experience, as far as game speed and how guys are in the SEC," Shaw said. "Practice and game tempo are two different things. Coaches try to simulate game speed as much as they can but nothing compares to it."

Shaw has tried hard to convey that message to youngsters such as James and Schofield. With only today's Orange & White Game left in spring practice, he hopes his comments have had some impact.

"I just tell them how the game speed is going to be," he said. "I tell them about the difference between practice and the game, and how to go about preparing for the games."

Shaw may have youthful players surrounding him but he has a grizzled veteran mentoring him. That would be first-year O-line aide Harry Hiestand, a 23-year coaching veteran fresh from a five-season stint with the NFL's Chicago Bears.

"Coach Hiestand is a great guy, man," Shaw said. "I wish he was my O-line coach the whole time I was here. He forces us to be a unit, and that's something I'd never had since I've been here. I understand what he's preaching to us as far as becoming one, and I really like that."

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