The Offensive Line: Coming Into Their Own
Finally, to the offense.
No, we’re not going to address the Da’Rick Rogers soap opera. Yet. Instead, we will begin where you should always begin with: the salt of the earth; the offensive lineman.
Where to begin? Last season, so many expectations were put on this O-Line before any of them stepped on Shields-Watkins Field for the opener. Those expectations were either over-inflated or just simply not achieved in any way, shape, or form. It all depends on how you look at it. One thing is certain – their collective performance was an embarrassment. I don’t know how else to put it.
We observers still haven’t a clue if it was the line or the running backs to cause a national ranking of 116th in rushing. It just looked as if the offensive linemen were lost. Senseless penalties (mostly false starts) made you want to hit something. Snaps that were either worm-burners along the grass or high floating ducks just left you scratching your heads. The pass blocking was fairly effective most of the time, but is that assessment the result of us looking for anything to feel positive about? When the dust cleared after the loss in Lexington, OL coach Harry Hiestand bolted Knoxville for Notre Dame instead of facing the likelihood of being fired as the scapegoat.
Enter Sam Pittman. Perhaps known more for his recruiting abilities than his coaching acumen, the former Tar Heels coach comes to save us from ourselves. Last season’s inadequacies could have been mostly about position coaching, and the more I think about a lot of Tennessee’s troubles of 2011, except for the key injuries, perhaps there was a lot of dysfunction in the coaching ranks and their relations to their troops. There certainly was a tendency to mentally get down when the chips got down, and that certainly was what the OL looked like more often as not as soon as the Vols found themselves under pressure.
Junior James Stone (#64) lost his starting job in the middle of last season. Whether it was being forced to snap left handed or being overwhelmed by opponents, the Vol fanbase was relieved when Stone was relieved of his duties. But Stone returns to the starting center position for 2012 instead of last season’s replacement Alex Bullard who is being moved to the guard position. Let’s hope that Stone gains the confidence needed from the fresh air of a new coach in order to be a solid anchor of the OL in 2012. Freshman Mack Crowder (#57) has made some news from camp as a solid backup.
Senior Dallas Thomas (#71) and Junior Zach Fulton (#72) look to be the starting guards to the left and the right, respectively. Fulton is coming back from an injury and hopefully will be healthy to achieve the status expected of him when he first appeared in an orange jersey. Thomas adds some serious experience and looks to also reverse his perceived underachievement under a new coach at a new position, having been shifted from left tackle to left guard. Sophomore Marcus Jackson (#68) and Junior Alex Bullard (#78) look to start the season as the backups on the left and right, respectively.
Sophomore Antonio “Tiny” Richardson (#74) and Junior Ja’Wuan James (#70) look to man the left and right tackle positions, respectively. Richardson holds his nickname for likely reasons – he’s a hulk of a man. His blind-side responsibilities are massive to the success of the passing attack, and his ascendancy to this key position in only his sophomore season speaks volumes of his potential. Two freshmen have been tabbed as the subs: Alan Posey (#67) on the left and Kyler Kerbyson (#77) on the right.
Rounding out the reserves on the offensive line include: seniors Carson Anderson (#60) and Darin Gooch (#73), juniors Jacob Gilliam (#65) and Brock Collier (#79), sophomores Marques Pair (#66) and Isaac Mobley (#75), and freshman Adam Eichelberger (#63).
The Final Word
Improvement in the offensive line over the last two seasons is paramount to success in 2012, especially in the rushing game. As much as we love to talk about the strengths of the Vol aerial game, the run isn’t going away, and will have to be effective for Tennessee to have a winning season. Two consecutive seasons at 6-7 and 5-7 is no accident when considering the offensive line’s performances. The first real test of 2012 of Sam Pittman’s crew will be Game 3 against Florida (NC State has a relatively weak OL, and Georgia State is, well, Georgia State). The performance of the OL in that game will be a window to the possibilities of the remainder of the season.