If Tennessee wants to live up to Eric Berry’s lofty expectations of 10 wins this season, the Volunteers will need to repeat the sparkling effort its offensive line produced on Saturday.
As Jonathan Crompton, Montario Hardesty, Marsalis Teague and Bryce Brown got many of the accolades following the Vols season opening, 63-7 romp over Western Kentucky, a dazzling performance by the offensive line went nearly unnoticed.
Tennessee gained 380 yards rushing, the most since 1994 against Vanderbilt, and quarterbacks Crompton and Nick Stephens went virtually untouched, as the offensive line did not allow a sack.
Much has changed along the offensive front since Lane Kiffin replaced Phillip Fulmer as head coach in December. Kiffin brought in his own staff littered with NFL pedigrees, including line coach James Cregg, who held the same position under Kiffin with the Oakland Raiders, and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who served as the St. Louis Rams tight ends coach for the past three seasons.
The emphasis on solid line play paid dividends against an undermanned Hilltoppers squad, but the tune up was needed for a line that was maligned much of last year and came into the season facing injury and depth issues.
Three starters returned for the Vols in 2009, but Tennessee lost center Josh McNeil to a knee injury just before fall camp ended and left guard Vladimir Richard left Saturday’s game with an injury. Those issues pressed former walk-ons Cody and Cory Sullins into prominent roles on Saturday.
Tennessee’s coaching staff saw depth as a concern early on in spring drills and decided to move former Maryville High School standout Aaron Douglas from tight end, a position of strength for the Vols, to right offensive tackle.
Douglas picked up the position so quickly that when the final depth charts were released before the season opener, he was listed as a co-starter alongside junior Jarrod Shaw.
Although Shaw ended up starting the first series of the season, Douglas played 26 snaps in his first game at tackle and was given a grade of 94 by his coaches.
“I was pumped up,” Douglas said of how he first felt when he entered the huddle on Saturday. “But we have had so many tough practices that I felt pretty comfortable out there. It’s definitely different than tight end in a lot of aspects.”
The transition from tight end to tackle was not as tough as it could have been for the redshirt freshman. Kiffin’s system relies on linemen with good hands and feet, and Douglas possesses those traits after playing defensive end along with tight end at Maryville.
“The day I got here, I talked about our linemen being too fat,” Kiffin said. “There’s a reason for that. We have to be able to play extremely athletic and extremely quick. We saw that on Saturday.”
However, Douglas, whose father, David, also played offensive line for Tennessee and whose No. 78 Aaron now wears, knows he has a lot of work left to do.
“I’ve got a ways to go,” Douglas said. “I’m just taking it in stride. I’m learning from Jarrod, and I’m learning from the rest of the line. I’m working hard in practice so if I do get a chance and play in the game, I’m going to go out give it my best shot.”
Maryville coach George Quarles feels Douglas could be uniquely suited for success at his new position. Douglas, a two-time Mr. Football winner as a Rebel, was not only a matchup nightmare for opposing linebackers as a receiving tight end. His drive blocking when the Rebels ran the ball was first rank as well.
“He’s athletic,” Quarles said. “I think playing tight end probably gave him a little bit better footwork than he might have had. There are so many more formations you can have when you have a tight end as athletic as him.”
It’s not simply learning a new position that Douglas confronts, Quarles said. It’s learning a new position where everyone he’s assigned to block is super quick.
“They’re probably as fast as some of the perimeter guys in high school,” Quarles said.
All that withstanding, Quarles said he has no doubt Douglas will shine as a Vol.
“The thing that will separate Aaron in the end is his competitive nature,” Quarles said. “He competes, and he hates to lose.”
There have been many visible differences between last season’s coaching staff and the current one, but one of the most important has been the manner in which Tennessee approaches the practice field this year.
Practices are physical. From the start, Kiffin has maintained everyone would have an equal opportunity for playing time. That was evident as the Vols saw six freshmen start against Western Kentucky.
The physical nature of practice suits the offensive linemen, especially Douglas, who needs as many repetitions as he can get, both to learn his new position and to fight for the starting job. Douglas’ voice rose in excitement as he talked about practices under Kiffin.
“Practices are really physical - it is full out competition, full speed ahead,” he said. “That’s why we are going to be ready in games. If you aren’t ready to step it up and go full speed, you might as well go home. If you go hard in practice, it will make the games easy. That’s our coaches’ philosophy, and I buy into it 100 percent.”
For Douglas to be ready to play in important situations and continue to challenge Shaw for the starting spot, the key is for him to refine his technique and pass protection.
“I’m really trying to work on being more patient,” Douglas said. “Pass protection is a lot about technique. Coach Cregg always tells us to be patient, and that’s what it’s all about. I have to be patient with the defensive end’s moves and just getting my steps down.”
For Douglas and the rest of Tennessee’s offensive line, the competition gets a whole lot tougher this week against UCLA. The Bruins accounted for five tackles for loss and only gave up 38 yards rushing in their season opening win against San Diego State.
While UCLA’s defensive line remains as stout as it was last year, its linebacking corps is led by Kyle Bosworth, nephew of former NFL linebacker and FOX commentator Brian Bosworth. The younger Bosworth has a knack for getting behind the line of scrimmage and wreaking havoc on both the running and passing game of his opponents.
“This is a defense that has three first-round draft picks,” Kiffin said. “A middle linebacker who is making a ton of difficult plays, and two defensive ends who can really rush us. We are going to have to be able to hit on all cylinders to be able to play in this game.”
Tennessee’s line must first deal with the primary rush of UCLA’s defensive line and then cope with Bosworth and the rest of the Bruins’ talented linebackers on the secondary rush. When asked about UCLA, Douglas sounded confident that his coaches would have the line prepared for a worthy opponent.
“(The coaches) teach great technique,” Douglas explained. “That’s what our offense is all about- helmet placement, opening the hole up and going from there. Technique is what it’s all about for us on the line, and it’s going to help us win a lot of ball games.”
Of course, Tennessee’s line is fortunate to have four excellent running backs lead their offense. Hardesty, a senior, Brown and fellow true freshman David Oku all reached the end zone against Western Kentucky. Those three, along with Tauren Poole, will be counted on to carry the Vols as the team recovers from a host of injuries at the wide receiver position.
“(The tailbacks) are running great,” Douglas said. “It’s a big plus when you have four guys who can run like that. The line is blessed to have them, we really are.”
For Tennessee, success will start up front. Crompton will need time in the pocket to get comfortable in his fourth offensive system in four years with the team.
With a banged up receiving corps, that means the running attack must be the Vols bread and butter. If its first game was any indication, Tennessee’s rebuilt offensive line will be up to the task. For Douglas, the key is buying into the coaching staff’s philosophy, something that never quite happened last year.
“Everybody, 100 percent,” Douglas said of the team’s confidence in Kiffin’s staff. “The coaches have us going in the right direction. We’ve just got to keep following them.”