When a team has endured back-to-back seven loss seasons, they usually don’t have one of the best offensive line groups in the nation.
But that’s what first-year Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones can hang his hat on in 2013 as he gets acquainted with the best league in college football, the SEC. The Volunteers’ offensive line has been labeled by some as the best group at their position in all of college football, with NFL-caliber talent at all five positions.
New offensive line coach, Don Mahoney inherits four starters from last season’s group that helped lead an offense that averaged 477.6 yards per game and only allowed eight sacks. The group ranked fifth nationally, best in the SEC.
You have to begin with the imposing duo of tackles with Ja’Wuan James and Antonio “Tiny” Richardson.
James, a 6-foot-6 320-pound senior right tackle has started all 37 games since coming to Knoxville, all at right tackle. He decided to come back after serious consideration to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft after last season. He is the vocal leader of the group and possesses a great kick step in his pass-protection. James has the ability to be one of the best tackles in the nation this season for the Vols, and his massive body projects as a right tackle or guard in the NFL.
Richardson, 6-foot-6 327-pound junior left tackle was an elite tackle as a junior and has great footwork for his weight against bull-rushing defensive ends off the edge. He could catapult his stock this season and bloom into a potential first round grade by next April’s draft. He is coming back from missing spring practice due to an injury and has looked good so far in August.
Senior center James Stone at 6-foot-3 290 pounds is a Rimington Trophy finalist. He returns after three seasons of playing center and both guards for the Vols. He possesses great intelligence of the game and leads the line with his calls at center. Stone, a southpaw, regained his starting job last season under the tutelage of former Volunteers/current Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman after only starting six games in 2011. The Nashville native has the ability in big games but needs to be more fluid with his shotgun snaps this season in the new no-huddle pro-style offense.
Notre Dame transfer, redshirt senior left guard Alex Bullard is 6-foot-2 302 pounds. He started 12 games in 2011 and worked as a reserve last season. He has seen time at tight end, both guards and center after leaving South Bend and coming back to his home-state school, following his father’s death. After starting six games at left guard in 2011, he started at center against Alabama and played there for the rest of the season. Last season because of tight end depth, he was a backup tight end and used mostly as an extra blocker. He won the left guard spot, vacated by Miami Dolphins third-round pick Dallas Thomas, over Marcus Jackson in the spring and could be very effective as a pulling guard in his senior season. Bullard brings added depth and experience at any position on the offensive front.
Senior right guard Zach Fulton is 6-foot-5, 323 pounds and a preseason second team All-SEC nominee. He has started 29 of 31 games at right guard in his three seasons as a Volunteer. Fulton has that terror in run blocking and plays his fits and technique very well. He has a chance to be a starting interior lineman in the NFL next season, but the Illinois native must get better with his hands in pass blocking. He would start on many college team’s as a blindside left tackle, but either guard spot is where Fulton projects the best in the next level.
The Volunteers’ offensive line will have to pick up the slack this season with a new starting quarterback, Justin Worley, and the losses of big-time playmakers Cordarrelle Patterson, Mychal Rivera and Justin Hunter to the NFL. This group seems hungry to end their careers well after three consecutive losing seasons and numerous coaching changes in their time in Knoxville. They will be counted on in the running game and leading the team in tough SEC games this season.
Steve Fisher and Michigan basketball had the Fab Five, this season Tennessee has the 2013 football version.