Vols hope Pope can cope

In three years at Tennessee he has never started a game. This fall, however, he could be starting every play.

After stints at tight end, defensive tackle, guard and offensive tackle, Vol junior Cody Pope appears to have found a home at center. Shifted to the position midway through spring practice, the 6-6, 290-pounder responded so well that he now looms as the odds-on favorite for the job.

"The most difficult part is just having the ball in your hands at all times," Pope said recently. "I'm STARTING the play; that's the biggest thing."

In addition to initiating each play by snapping the ball, he has a bigger mental workload at center than he had during his stints at tight end, guard and tackle.

"I've got to make all of the (line) calls," he said. "I'm basically the second quarterback on the field. That's the biggest adjustment. I think I've handled it pretty well but I'm going to get better over the summer."

Pope's competition for the first-team center job is fifth-year senior Victor Thomas, who switched over from defensive tackle at the start of the spring. After four years on defense, Thomas is still learning the basics of offensive line play. Pope already has the basics down pat, which is why the adjustment to center has been a lot easier for him.

"It definitely helps," he conceded. "The coaches knew I'd be more comfortable at center and that it wouldn't be a real hard adjustment for me."

Even so, there were some growing pains. Learning to snap the ball was tricky, he discovered. Pope and Vol quarterbacks combined for a rash of botched center exchanges in Scrimmage No. 2 on April 10. He fixed that problem, however, and seems to be growing quite comfortable in his new position.

"I feel like I've done an all-right job," said Pope, a native of Julian, Calif. "But I need to be a little more clear with some stuff."

Because the center must deliver the ball to the quarterback before starting to block, he is a half-count behind the other offensive linemen in getting into his block. That means the opposing nose guard usually has an additional step of momentum when he and the center collide.

Having no idea how to overcome this disadvantage, Pope sought the advice of twins Cody and Cory Sullins, who played center for the 2009 Vols.

"I've talked to the Sullins brothers a lot," Pope said. "They've been giving me tips - extending the ball out a little farther in front of me and what-not. The defensive guy is right on me, so I don't have much space, but you can look at it as an advantage, too. You can get into him right now. That guy doesn't have much wiggle room to make a move, so you can look at it as a plus and a minus."

When head coach Derek Dooley asked Pope to move from tackle to center, the player saw the chance as all plus and no minus.

"I felt like it was another opportunity to help better this team; that was the first thing that came to my mind," he said. "When Coach told me 'You have an opportunity to play center,' I was like, "Let's get it on.'

"I'm down for whatever's good for the team - tight end, D-tackle - it doesn't matter if it's going to help the team."

Based on what he saw in spring practice, Dooley believes Pope's move to center could help the team a lot.

"Our biggest concern upfront was the center position, and it still is," the head man said. "But Cody Pope has really persevered through the spring. We played him at guard and we moved him to tackle, and then we moved him inside. He's ended up being a good, steady hand."

Pope vows to spend the summer working to become an even steadier hand.

"I still need to get a little better in my run game," he said. "I think I'm making a lot of progress in my run game but I still need to get better."

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