Minus eight of the top nine offensive linemen from 2009, including all five starters, these clearly are desperate times for Tennessee's blocking front. That's why mid-term freshman Ja'Wuan James advanced to first-team at right tackle midway through spring practice and managed to tighten his grip on the job thereafter.
Rated a 4-star prospect by Scout.com as a senior at North Gwinnett High School of Suwanee, Ga., last winter, this 6-6, 290-pounder appears to have the size and strength to compete right away at the collegiate level. He may have little choice, since his backup, redshirt freshman Chase Phillips, also has no college experience.
James got rave reviews from Vol veterans during spring practice, a clearcut indication that he is significantly more advanced than the typical first-year player. Obviously, the fact he got to participate in 15 spring workouts puts him farther ahead of the curve.
Starting a freshman at tackle is rare at Tennessee but not unprecedented. Former Vol Aaron Douglas started 10 games at right tackle as a redshirt freshman in 2009 and Chad Clifton started nine games at right tackle as a redshirt freshman in 1996. The only true freshman to start at tackle for the Big Orange in the past two decades, however, was Michael Munoz, who served as Tennessee's No. 1 left tackle in 2002.
From all accounts, James is a bright and mature young man who is quickly absorbing and mastering the technical aspects of his position. This should help him tremendously as he makes the monumental transition from blocking high school linemen to blocking SEC linemen.
Another positive note: Some of the finest pass rushers James will face this year are the ones he'll be going against in practice each day - seniors Chris Walker, Ben Martin and Gerald Williams, along with Southern Cal transfer Malik Jackson. They could be the best quartet of defensive ends in the SEC this fall, so they surely will accelerate the rookie tackle's development.
Whether Ja'Wuan James is ready for major-college football to the extent that Munoz was as a true freshman is debatable. This much is not: If he's the best Tennessee has - and apparently he is - James will be in the Game 1 lineup. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures.