Aug. 3, 2014
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- While much of the attention thus far in fall camp for Tennessee has been on newcomers making a splash at the skill positions, the most important battles are going on up front on both sides of the ball as the Volunteers look to replace every starter on the offensive and defense lines.
Most of those battles are being waged by players that are short on game experience, but aren't new to the practice field at Tennessee.
"I'm really excited about the new guys," said associate head coach/defensive line coach Steve Stripling. "Obviously, we had some here mid-year, which really helped along with the crew that got here in June. You know, the new rule that allowed us to spend two hours a week with them was really beneficial. I think we're way ahead right now."
The numbers are startling at first glance, even more so at second look. Tennessee returns zero starters on the offensive and defensive lines, the fewest in the nation. As head coach Butch Jones mentioned in the preseason press conference, the numbers are an abnormality nationally. The Vols are the only team in FBS not to return a starter on the offensive line.
"It's always important for guys to have value for not just one position but to know a number of them," said offensive line coach Don Mahoney. "I think that's the biggest thing with having some young guys is not overloading them too much. Coach Jones talks in terms of don't let their minds tie up their feet. I think it's true in all positions, particularly at the offensive line position. You want to play as physical and relentless as possible."
Defensively, the numbers are similar. UT is one of just seven FBS teams to return zero starters on the defensive line and just eight total starts, all of them from senior Jordan Williams. Only Colorado State returns fewer starts, three, on the defensive line in FBS.
The combined zero returning starts on both lines is also the fewest nationally. The next fewest in the country is Colorado State with two, while the next fewest in the SEC is Georgia with four. The 14 combined starts on the lines is also the fewest nationally.
THE POWER OF ONETennessee's football team had plenty of opportunities to get loose today, as the group was mentally and physically tested before practice by restarting stretch drills multiple times due to lack of `energy', according to Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach Mike Bajakian.
"When you come out and have a slow start, it's an illustration of you not taking advantage of that opportunity," said Bajakian. "We challenged them. So, they better respond and they did respond."
Bajakian noted that along the coaching staff monitoring each individual on-field performance, Coach Jones and his staff have implemented player coaches, as well. The peer-elected group is tasked with leading by example on a daily basis and is expected to hold other teammates accountable for their actions.
"Coach Jones had done that at various points throughout our time together," said Bajakian. "It's a way to give the players ownership and it's a way to create accountability to one another. Obviously, we're going to be demanding as coaches but they need to be demanding of each other.
"We've been talking a lot about the Power of One. One common purpose. One commitment. So much of the idea of looking at things one unit at a time is taking advantage of every opportunity to come out and get the most of it. It's been a theme of ours all offseason."
A CHANGE IN PHILOSOPHY
For Steve Stripling, today's practice in shoulder pads could not have come quickly enough. With the full squad hitting the field this weekend, Stripling was happy to see the drastic change in physicality and overall makeup of his defensive line this year.
"I would prefer athleticism over size," said Stripling. "We want to be an aggressive defense and we want to be able to make plays with our defensive linemen. In order to do that, you have to athletic."
Stripling is confident that this spring and summer will prove to be time was well spent with newcomers, as each player is expected to overcome learning curves and step up in a big way for Tennessee's line.
"You know, the new rule that allowed us to spend two hours a week with them was really beneficial. I think we're way ahead right now," added Stripling.
Following a 2013 season which saw six seniors on the defensive line, the Vols now boast only one senior in defensive tackle Jordan Williams, who continues to make huge strides in his new position and leadership role on the line.
"He looks great and he's doing a great job with his weight," said Stripling. "He's excited about playing in there and again, that's athleticism. You'll see Jordan make some plays at defensive tackle that we couldn't make in the past.
With motivated leaders such as Williams, Jakob Johnson and Curt Maggitt on defense, the sway in upperclassmen numbers does not deter Stripling, who sees a change for the better in his group and the depth of the Tennessee defense.
"Drastic change is what we're all about," said Stripling. "We're recruiting with a plan and athleticism is what we look for. We are looking for playmakers. That's the style we're recruiting."
LIFE SUCCESS AIDED BY FOOTBALL
"He's a kid that obviously realized that football was going to be his way to change his future, change his life," Gillespie said. "He's done a great job making off the field decisions and great job in the classroom. Those are really the things that really matter in the end. Hopefully with him doing the right thing on the field and off the field, it will help him have a good football season.
"Marlin that has wanted to change. He has wanted to change the way people looked at him. Fighting every day earn respect form his peers and coaching staff and to put a product out there that makes him proud. He has done a good job."
Now entering his fourth year in the program, Lane has proven to his teammates and coaching staff that he is committed to success. Gillespie even notes that Lane beats him to it when vocally leading the team to go faster during practice.
Lane's success reminds Gillespie of why he joined the ranks of coaching.
"Marlin Lane is what we are here to do. What I mean by that is that you will recruit some kids that are already self-sufficient. They come from great environments and everything is perfect. They don't need tutors, study hall or those extra things.
"Marlin Lane is why we coach. He is a kid that football was his way to do something different for his family and himself. Those are the kinds of guys that you want. You want that type of challenge as a coach. That's why you get into it. You take on both sides of it - the great kid but also the kid that needs the extra little effort. He's that kind of kid."
RETURNEES VOCALIZING LEAD ON O-LINE
The Vols are not completely devoid of experience on the offensive line, returning six total starts, also fewest in FBS. Redshirt juniors Mack Crowder (one) and Marcus Jackson (five) make up those starts and had the opportunity to play alongside NFL draftees Ja'Waun James and Zach Fulton in seasons past.
With training camp in full swing and the first day with pads completed, _ coach Mahoney says there are two voices of the offensive line in Crowder and Jackson.
"There aren't a whole lot of starts under our belt," Mahoney said. "What I do like is, talking about Mack Crowder and Marcus Jackson, those are two guys that have had playing time and have had a start. Their work and day-in-and-day-out attitude and approach is one in which the group follows.
"Last year we had a bunch of guys. Now there's just a couple. That's good. It's all in how we approach and look at it. There's really two voices right now. Those two guys are the cow bell in which this is the way we want it done by the group. Those are the two voices but the other guys are responding well to it."
Crowder's ability to be vocal has Mahoney looking at the positives.
"We want guys to take charge, especially in the center position, but vocally take charge," Mahoney said. "(Crowder) didn't like what he saw today from our second group, and he took charge by the manner in which he addressed the situation. It was a critical moment to lead and he did. He said it in a tone that he needs to have up front by gosh this is the way I want it up front.
"He's earned that respect that the players know that's his style every day. The respect from his peers is great. Anytime he speaks up, the players know and they listen. The respect factor is there and actions are soon to follow." Despite an inexperienced line compared to others, there is much to look forward to as the up and coming offensive linemen are hard at work building knowledge and enhancing their skillset.
"They made gains in the weight room," Mahoney said. "Their understanding of the offense is better. Therefore, they're playing a little bit faster but technically in pads it's such a different deal than the first day in which it's always different for them. You work on the fundamentals all summer, but once you actually get the pads on it's a routine you get into as far as the hitting, the landmarks and those kinds of things."