There's no substitute for talent, experience and depth on the offensive line. Great offensive lines have a way of making ordinary skill players look a lot better than they are.
The jury is still out on what kind of firepower Tennessee will have on offense this season after losing their top four pass-catchers from a year ago and their starting quarterback, but the Vols should be plenty stout up front. That's always a good place to start in this league, which leads us to our latest number as we count down the days to kickoff: 123.
Butch Jones takes over a Tennessee program that has suffered through three straight losing seasons, and while there are glaring question marks at several different positions, the offensive line isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s hard to find a more experienced offensive line anywhere in college football entering the 2013 season. Four full-time starters return up front for the Vols, and all four are likely to play in the NFL. Counting everybody, Tennessee returns 123 career starts on its offensive line. Only Texas returns more. Senior right tackle Ja’Wuan James is the “old man” of the group. He’s started in every game of his college career (37) since his true freshman season in 2010. Senior right guard Zach Fulton is right behind him with 28 starts, while senior center James Stone has 27 starts. Senior Alex Bullard, who started his career at Notre Dame, slides in for Dallas Thomas this season as the starter at left guard. Bullard has 14 career starts. Junior Antonio “Tiny” Richardson is the most talented of the bunch and returns at left tackle after starting in all 12 games last season. Richardson is a future first-rounder and will likely come out after this season. The Vols are still trying to build depth, although junior Marcus Jackson started in five games at left guard in 2011. Third-year sophomore Kyler Kerbyson would probably be the seventh man in the rotation. Tennessee led the SEC with only eight sacks allowed last season, which was 10 fewer than the next closest team. The challenge was becoming more physical in the running game, and the Vols are eager to prove that they can knock people off the ball as well as they can protect the passer. It’s not going to be easy in Jones’ first season. Simply making it to a bowl game would be a coup. If the Vols are going to get there, they’ll do so with their big, talented (and experienced) offensive line clearing the way.