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Vols’ veteran linemen accept new challenge

Vols’ veteran linemen accept new challenge

Posted: Monday, April 16, 2012 7:00 pm

KNOXVILLE — It is no secret that Tennessee’s primary emphasis on the offensive side of the ball this spring has been on getting the run game going.
Much of the pressure of accomplishing that task has fallen on the broad shoulders of the offensive line, a challenge that they have fully embraced.
“We put pressure on them, I have since I’ve been here,” UT offensive line coach Sam Pittman said. “The bottom line is if a back rushes for 150 yards, you have a great back. If you rush for 50, the line is terrible. The Good Lord didn’t give us speed, so that’s part of the job and we understand that. At the same time, we have to do a better job running the football and that has been a great emphasis for us. We are going to take it upon ourselves that we are the reason, whether that is true or not. We are going to take it that we are the reason and we are the people that are going to try to fix it.”
For the first time in a few years, the Vols return an experienced group up front with six players that started last season and four who have at least 17 starts in their career. That experience has created a veteran group that has been quick to adapt to a new position coach in Pittman and implement the new techniques and schematic changes that he has brought with him.
“They know football, they understand football and I think we are playing faster,” Pittman said. “Hopefully it will show up on the field, but it has been a pleasure to coach these guys and they are working hard. Obviously when I came in I knew that we had some guys coming back so it makes a big difference.”
Key to the offensive line’s success will be its ability to move players around to different positions without losing a beat. That versatility has been an important focus for Pittman in his first few weeks at Tennessee.
“The NFL keeps about eight (offensive linemen), and the guys they keep are the guys that have played different spots,” Pittman said. “Whether they are starting or not, players like James Stone and Dallas Thomas are so important to our offensive line. They are so important because they can play a couple of different spots. We are trying to find out where we are now and where we need to be in the fall so we are experimenting with a couple different spots.”
Highlighting the need for versatility on the line, the Vols recently lost junior Zach Fulton for two weeks to a stress fracture in his right foot. During his absence, Stone rose to the occasion and staked claim to a starting spot. With Fulton back in the fold, he will now have to earn his way back to the top of the depth chart rather than having it handed to him.
“(Zach) was out two weeks, so he has to earn his spot back and we had a talk with him about that. I thought he’d be rusty a little bit but the training staff did a nice job with him and he played well yesterday. We awful lucky and happy to have him back but Stone has been working at right guard and right tackle and Stone is our starter right now. Of course the depth chart is just a chart and Fulton is also playing with the ones, but Stone has started for two weeks and we wanted to make Zach come back and earn his spot. We’ll see what happens, but we are really glad to have both of them.”
COMMON THEME — The two words that have floated around Tennessee’s spring camp in terms of improving as a team have been fast and physical.
That’s no different when it comes to the Vols’ wide receivers.
Wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw used both words when describing what he wants out of his unit.
Where these two qualities will show up most are in the run game, where the Vols have seen needed progress already.
“I want you to go as hard as you possibly can blocking because in the run game the difference between a four-yard run and a 20-yard run — and I showed them when we watched the scrimmage — there are a couple blocks we made that got us a 20 or 25-yard run that we weren’t getting last year,” Hinshaw said. We weren’t making the block at wide receiver. We made that block and it sprung loose a couple of runs.”
The goal now is to add another word to that mix: Consistency.
“If we play like that every snap in the run game, we’re going to have bigger runs that are going to help our run game,” Hinshaw said. “Our emphasis is to be physical, play fast and then we have to make plays.”
SPECIALIZED TRAINING — In his first season at Tennessee, defensive line coach John Palermo is already enjoying the opportunity to work in a base 3-4 system.
Although the Vols will deliver multiple looks in 2012, working with one less defensive lineman at a time than he’s used to has benefitted him and the UT front three.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve worked with only three,” Palermo said. “I’ve normally coached all four down guys because I’ve been in a 4-3 or an under-scheme a lot. I think it definitely helps from a reps standpoint, to be able to only have to rep three guys versus rep four guys in your individual drills.”
When head coach Derek Dooley assembled the defensive staff under defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, he made it as efficient as possible.
“There are some places that have two D-Line coaches, one linebacker coach and one secondary coach,” Palermo said. “I think the way we’re doing is the way you have to do it in order to run the system.”
Palermo is veteran of 37 years of coaching, including two seasons with the Washington Redskins and 15 years at the University of Wisconsin, where he coached four first-team All-Americans, four Big Ten Defensive Linemen of the Year, two Big Ten Defensive Players of the Year and a pair of first-round draft selections.

Published in The Messenger 4.16.12

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