KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (release) -- 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 ONE
Tennessee'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
A success story comes in many forms. To running backs coach Robert Gillespie, senior Marlin Lane epitomizes a success story, not just in football, but in life.
"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 skill set.
"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."
Here are sound bites from the assistant coaches after Sunday's practice
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR MIKE BAJAKIAN
»(On installing new schemes with the O-Line)
"We're teaching them the skills and the techniques that they would need to use in any scheme. Whether you're adding the read component of a zone-read concept or you're under center and you're running either inside or outside zone, they're going to need to use those same techniques and execute those same plays."
»(On quarterback experience effecting speed of offense)
"They're a pretty smart group. In terms of tempo, I wouldn't say that their experience had or has hampered us in any way in the past. I think as much as anything, it's having had almost our whole offensive unit here since January. That has helped us move faster."
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR JOHN JANCEK
»(On defensive position changes to enhance team speed)
"It's all an attempt to get some speed on the field. Taking a linebacker, that's obviously got to have the size, and moving him to defensive end - that equates to more speed on the field. Taking a bigger defensive end that's athletic and moving him inside to defensive tackle - that equates to more speed on the field. Taking a corner and moving him to safety - those are the kinds of moves we're going to continue to look to make going forward."
DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
»(On Cam Sutton)
"He has done a tremendous job, Cam was one of the most consistent players as a young guy last year. Along with Marquez North. It is really good to see him step up now in more of a leadership role. Again, he knows he hasn't arrived, he still has to continue to improve on some of the things he needs to improve on. Emmanuel and D'Andre coming here early was a major advantage because you can see that when you go out there these first three days. They feel very confident, a lot more confident than they did when they first got here."
DEFENSIVE LINE COACH STEVE STRIPLING
»(On what he likes about Curt Maggitt)
"Maggitt is a multi-purpose young man. First of all, he's the energy stick. He's the leader and he does all of that. As he goes, our group goes. It's great to have him in the room."
»(On which new guys stand out on the D-line)
"I'll give you a pair. I think [Derek] Barnett and [Dewayne] Hendrix have jumped out. They're showing, I think, that they're mature enough and physical enough at this point to see where they end up on the depth chart."
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
»(On Josh Smith)
"I have never batted an eye on Josh Smith. Josh Smith is going to be a very good player here. He's what we're looking for as far as skill set, quick-twitch, very, very tough. Football is very important for him. I think the sky is the limit for Josh - I've always said that. He had a rough year last year ... we worked those kinks out, he got that knee fixed, and we're on. Slow but sure, I think he's doing really well. I don't want to get ahead of the game, but he's being a consistent guy right now making some plays for us."
»(On Pig Howard)
"You know what, he's had a great three days. Knock on wood, he's been outstanding. His work ethic has been unbelievable. His mentality has been unbelievable. His play has been unbelievable. He's like a different player from last year just as far as now he knows what I expect. He's been great so we're taking it one day at a time with him ... not putting too much on him, not too many expectations, putting one day after the next day after the next day and hopefully he's running out of that `T' with us."
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR MARK ELDER
»(On Aaron Medley)
"Aaron's done a good job. He's got a tremendous pop to his leg. He's got the ability to do it. He's probably going through the first time that he's ever had someone trying to get into his head because Coach Jones certainly does a great job of trying to put our kickers, our specialists, into situations of stress. He's probably only kicked in front of 2,000 people in his life. Well, there's gonna be another hundred thousand there in Neyland Stadium that are going to be watching him kick. So there's going to be a little more pressure than he's ever experienced so we try to do a good job of bringing those guys up at the end of the practice, in front of the whole group, and they know that everyone is watching and there's a lot of pressure on them. He's had a good day, and he's had a day where he wished he had a better day, but we're expecting big things and he's gonna have a great career."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
» (On Jalen Hurd)
"Those 15 practices that Jalen Hurd got are invaluable. I really don't look at him as one of the new guys. I don't look at him as a freshman because he knows what we expect. He knows the tempo. He's done a good job along with Marlin (Lane), Deanthonie Summerhill. All those guys have done a really good job pushing those new guys."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
»(On keeping Coleman Thomas on the right side)
"There are some things today that were really positive with him. I think he is playing a lot faster. Having known what he went through in the spring was huge. Having those days to put under his belt from spring practice to right now there are still moments where he's not playing as fast as we would like but thank goodness for those 15 days in spring or else he would be that much slower. I'm encouraged at where he is at. Have to keep chipping away at him. He's really talented and sharp kid."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
»(On leadership within the group)
"They look up to A.J. [Johnson], they really do. A.J.'s the alpha male in the room, and he's holding all of them accountable. If they don't say it right, he doesn't have any sympathy on them because they're 18 years-old. He expects them all to know it. I'm pleased with his leadership and how the young guys are gravitating towards him. I think he's enjoying that role because he knows his assignment as well as the defense inside and out. They are gravitating towards him and asking a whole lot of questions."