Vols' offensive line looks to come of age

Tennessee’s offensive linemen don’t need any refresher courses. They know the numbers by heart.

A year ago, there were only four FBS teams that were worse at running the football than the Vols, who finished 116th nationally in rushing offense with an average of 90.1 yards per game.

Even worse, they managed just 2.76 yards per carry, which was good enough to finish ahead of only Memphis and Miami (Ohio) nationally.

Part of the problem was that Tennessee never fully committed to running the football. When quarterback Tyler Bray was healthy, the Vols were content with throwing the ball all over the place.

There were also limitations at running back. The thumb injury to Bray in the fifth game was another factor and made the Vols much easier to defend, but much of the blame for their ineptitude on the ground was placed squarely on the offensive line.

“The tough times are over, but we learned from those tough times,” said senior Dallas Thomas, who’s sliding inside to left guard this season to make room for promising 6-foot-6, 328-pound sophomore Antonio Richardson at left tackle.

“This is something everybody on the offensive line has been talking about, coming out and showing everybody what we’re really about. We want to be the type of line that can run the ball on anybody. Like I said, we got those growing pains out of the way, and it’s time to roll.”

For most of the past two seasons, the Vols were simply trying to survive up front. Right tackle Ja’Wuan James, right guard Zach Fulton and center James Stone were all thrown into the fire as true freshmen. Thomas has also been starting since he was a sophomore.

Nobody ever doubted this group’s talent. Out of high school, they were all big-time recruits, and they’re all on the radar of NFL scouts. They all weigh 300-plus pounds and are equally athletic. Richardson said he, James, Fulton and Thomas can all dunk a basketball, although Richardson proudly takes credit for being the most explosive dunker of the bunch.

“We know we’ve got everything it takes to be a dominant offensive line,” said Richardson, who’s known as “Tiny” to his teammates. “You can’t be dominant unless you’re physical, and that’s an element of our game that we’ve been working on since the spring.

“There’s just a different swagger with us, and you can see it in the way guys are walking around and see it in guys’ eyes. The offensive line put that chip on our shoulder this spring, and we haven’t let up. I believe it’s going to pay big dividends this fall in running the ball, and it starts Friday night.”

The Vols open the season Friday against NC State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome.

Saying it’s a pivotal game for Tennessee coach Derek Dooley and the program is akin to saying that knowing how to play “Rocky Top” is important for the Pride of the Southland Band.

On the heels of back-to-back losing seasons, this is a game that could send Dooley on his way to a breakthrough season in his third year on the job, but it’s also a game that could go a long way toward sending him packing if the Vols stumble in Atlanta.

So much of Tennessee’s fortunes in 2012 will ride on its offensive line and whether or not the Vols can generate a running game, which is exactly the way the guys up front want it.

After all, they were excellent in pass protection last season and allowed just 18 sacks in 12 games, tying for second in the SEC. But when you can’t make third-and-short and can’t get the tough yards, nobody remembers how few sacks you allowed.

“We want the team to depend on us. We want to be the ones who get the wheels on this bus rolling,” said Thomas, part of a Tennessee offensive line that now has 106 combined career starts.

It’s no coincidence that the six straight national champions from the SEC have all averaged at least 160 rushing yards per game. In fact, the past five national champions have averaged 214 or more yards per game on the ground.

The Vols’ offensive linemen aren’t predicting they’ll go from 90 yards to 200 yards per game, but they are predicting a more consistent running game and a more explosive running game to go along with a passing game that should be plenty potent even without dismissed All-SEC receiver Da’Rick Rogers.

Junior running back Rajion Neal has looked like the complete package during preseason camp, and another big change has been first-year offensive line coach Sam Pittman. His personality and approach to the game have seemed to be a better fit for this group.

“The guys just feel like they can relate to him,” Richardson said. “You can walk up to his office and talk to him about anything outside of football, and he also has a way of getting onto you and making you better, but he doesn’t put too much pressure on you.”

Pittman, who was with Butch Davis for five seasons at North Carolina, said he’s simply been himself.

“When you’re honest with them and don’t lie to them and let them know you care about them, I think anybody can get the most out of the players,” Pittman said. “That’s all I’ve done, and it seems to have worked out well.”

Pittman is as eager as anyone to see how it all shakes out Friday in Atlanta.

“I’d be lying to you if I said it hasn’t gone well this preseason,” Pittman said. “That being said, we haven’t played anybody yet. But they’re willing, and they’re athletic. If you’re physical and athletic, then you’ve got a chance to be pretty good.

“We’re athletic, and we’ll see Friday if we’re willing to play physical or not. I think we will, but we have 12 regular-season games to test that.”