March 8, 2014
By Jason Yellin
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.-- From 184 to 7.
That's the number of starts Tennessee's offensive line had when the 2013 season ended compared to the number of starts among all of the Vols' returning linemen have in 2014.
Quite the contrast in experience as Tennessee will be replacing its entire starting offensive line this season.
Only two members of the Vols' roster have started a game on the offensive line. Redshirt junior Marcus Jackson, who has six starts and classmate Mack Crowder, who drew his first -- and only college start -- in the Vols' dramatic win over South Carolina last October.
"We have to come in every day and have a different mindset that we do have to step up and take over five different positions one the line," said Crowder. "I think it is really driving everybody. We have had two really good days so far and Tuesday we come out and start hitting. So we will really see where everybody is at then."
Tennessee had one of the most experienced lines in America in 2013 anchored by Ja'Wuan James, who set the Tennessee record for games started on the line with 49. He was joined by fellow seniors Zach Fulton (40 starts), James Stone (39 starts) and Alex Bullard (25 starts). Antonio Richardson, who declared for the NFL Draft after his junior year, started the final 24 games of his college career.
That gave the Vols' departed starting line a grand total of 177 starts.
"We are just different players," said Crowder. "Those other guys were obviously very big and athletic. We are going to pride ourselves on being physical and finishing through the whistle. We really have to be strong mentally as well because those guys were so big and athletic we have to make up for that in other ways. Being smart before the play actually happens so you know what to do during the play."
Jackson and Crowder are excited for the opportunity to be leaders in the trenches.
"I come every day knowing that I have people looking up to me now," said Crowder. "I have to be a great example for them. If I come in and don't have a good day it could affect the guys beneath me. I just really have to prepare myself everyday mentally to come in and have the best day I could possibly have."
With all of the experience up front, Jackson redshirted in 2013, knowing he would have a chance to start his final two seasons on Rocky Top. But, ultimately, he did what was best for the team.
"As a player, it is a personal pride thing," said Jackson. "But if you look at it over time, you do what is best for the team. That is the aspect of football, it is a very team driven sport."
Jackson said he kept the same mindset throughout the season with the knowledge that he would probably not see the playing field in 2013.
"I never actually went into workouts like that," said Jackson. "It was always just go ahead and I was just making sure I was learning from the guys ahead of me. I was just making sure I could help as much as I could. There is no such thing as, 'just being you are redshirting you are not part of the team'."
James, Stone and Fulton have continued to keep a close eye on their proteges and took in the Vols' first two practices this spring.
Seeing lots of action at center, Crowder has a lot of respect for Stone, who started ahead of him for the past three seasons.
"(Stone) has obviously been at the combine, so having someone like that in front of me, able to learn from him," said Crowder. "Just being able to watch what he does and have him coach me up and just helping me. He is an NFL player so getting NFL advice is great."
With all of the positions on the offensive line up for grabs, there are new opportunities for young veterans such as redshirt junior Kyler Kerbyson and sophomore Dylan Wiesman along with junior college transfer Dontavius Blair.
"(Blair) is a big, athletic guy," said Crowder. "He has been doing pretty good job on the field mentally. He still has a lot of work to do. He is pretty raw. But he is a great worker, he brings it every day and he is all in for us. Depending on how bad he wants it, he will be a great asset for us."
"Everyone is working very hard," said Jackson. "(Thomas) is one of those guys. He is trying to learn everything, he is giving it his all and he is working hard."
An offensive line is only as good each of its parts and that is something Jackson is well aware of.
"A line is about five people working together," he said. "It is not about who is there. It is how good they are together. It is all about the team chemistry at the line."