Protecting a VIP

Being a left tackle is a lot like being a secret service agent: Your job is to do whatever it takes to protect a Very Important Person.

Tennessee's Dallas Thomas understands that. As the Vols' starting left tackle, he'll spend the 2010 football season protecting the blind side of quarterback Matt Simms.

Thomas, a 6-5, 295-pound sophomore from Baton Rouge, recognizes the importance of protection. He earned a varsity letter in 2009 simply by protecting Vol kickers as a blocker on punts and placements. That was akin to overseeing a Governor, however, whereas his new gig is more like overseeing The President.

Although he clearly recognizes the importance of protecting the quarterback, Thomas won't let his key role in that endeavor worry him.

"I just think about 'Let's dominate this guy right here,'" he said, referring to the defensive end he's blocking. "I don't worry about the blind side or the front side. I just focus on this guy not beating me and getting in good position to protect the quarterback. That's all I think about."

Because he is more mobile than backup QB Tyler Bray, Simms is more inclined to roll out and occasionally scramble a bit. Thomas says that makes no difference in his approach to pass protection, however.

"Not to me," he said. "I know what I've got to do. I'm going to make sure he don't have to do that (scramble). I'm going to hold my ground."

Tennessee's offensive linemen are the first players on the practice field each afternoon and the last to leave each evening. There's a simple reason for that dedication: They are tired of hearing how the blocking front is going to be the 2010 team's weak link.

"We knew everybody was looking at us, and we weren't going to be that unit on the team," Thomas said. "If that meant we had to stay after, watch extra film or do drills after workouts, that's what we were going to do."

Right guard Jarrod Shaw has three college starts to his credit. The rest of Tennessee's offensive linemen have a combined total of zero. Given this glaring level of inexperience, the Vols are not going to out-talent their opponents ... so they're hoping to outwork them. Line coach Harry Hiestand certainly has done his part to facilitate this.

"Coach Hiestand really grinds us," Thomas said, "and I really like that about Coach Hiestand."

Though only a sophomore, Thomas ranks as a relative old-timer among Vol offensive linemen. One redshirt freshman (JerQuari Schofield) and one true freshman (JaWuan James) will start Saturday night's opener vs. UT Martin, and three more true freshmen (Zach Fulton, Marques Pair, James Stone) hold second-team jobs.

From all accounts, though, the newcomers are progressing remarkably well.

"The young guys have gotten way better than from the summer," Thomas said. "When Coach Hiestand got under them and started putting that fire to them, I guess they had to go ahead and buy in, too, knowing Coach Hiestand was not going to let up on them or give up on them. He just kept going and going, and they have progressed a lot."

Because virtually all of Thomas' 2009 experience came on special teams, he can identify with Schofield and James as they prepare for their college debuts.

"This is my first game starting, too," Thomas said. "I have a little game experience but not that much, so we're all three coming in not knowing what to expect. But we feel Coach Hiestand got us prepared well enough that we shouldn't have to worry about none of that ... just play our game, do our job and get the job done."

None of those jobs is as important as that of Dallas Thomas. Like a secret service agent, he's entrusted with protecting a VIP.

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