Tennessee sophomore Devrin Young has been virtually as productive, play-for-play, snap-for-snap, as any of the Vols' candidates in the running back battle.
The former Bearden All-State selection has worked with the first-team, second-team and special teams units. So when Young talks about the improvement in Tennessee's backup offensive linemen, he can in part speak with authority.
"Some of my biggest plays have been with the second-team offensive line," Young said. "When I'm in there with them, it feels no different. It doesn't matter if I'm with the first team or second team; I know those guys are going to play just as hard, and they're going to know their assignments and they're going to open those holes up."
No position on Tennessee's roster has been as thoroughly reconstructed and replenished as the Vols' offensive line. Regardless of who eventually lines up as UT's starting five Aug. 31 against North Carolina State, the backups will have some starting experience. Marcus Jackson garnered some freshman honors last season in starting at guard but now is battling to outline a role, as are James Stone and Zach Fulton.
Redshirt freshmen Mack Crowder, at center, and Kyler Kerbyson and Alan Posey also are seeking to stabilize the second unit. Crowder has joined Antonio 'Tiny' Richardson in drawing praise from the coaches for his play this spring.
"Consistency and dependability. He's not going to overwhelm you with his size and power, but he delivers the ball consistently, he makes the calls the right way, he's on the right guys and he's a good technician," Derek Dooley said. "He's had a pretty good spring because of it. That's correct. Center is a little more paramount that you're a dependable player."
Crowder emphasized the improvement on both tiers of the offensive line and also pointed to the coaching techniques of Sam Pittman, the team's first-year line coach, as key as well.
"Coach Pittman really just emphasizes to play as fast as you can. Really, that's helping everybody," Crowder said. "We've simplified things a little bit, and it helps us not think as much. We're really just speeding everything up. And it's really helping in the run game, I believe.
"That's very valuable to me. I think it gives you a pretty good edge on the defense. Last year, a lot of times the defense could kind of anticipate us coming off the ball and things like that. But with the speed and everything this year, by simplifying the offense a little bit, we just have an edge all the time that really helps."
Like Crowder, Kerbyson pointed to his redshirt season as a key in his development. Crowder said he has added about 10 pounds to tip the scales at 280; Kerbyson is pushing 316. Moreover, both players feel much stronger.
"Redshirting really helped me with that. I'm up like 40 pounds on all my lifts," said Kerbyson, a former standout at Knoxville Catholic. "I went from 18 reps (of 225) when I first got here to 26. That redshirt really has helped. It's like it's a brand new start and I'm still a freshman instead of a sophomore."
The result is competition for playing time now that Crowder indicated should benefit the Vols in both the short- and long-term settings.
"That's definitely a motivator, because obviously the ones don't want to lose their spot and the twos have a pretty big goal to step up and get a lot of playing time this year," Crowder said. "It really just motivates everybody, and the offensive line leads the team. So since we come to practice motivated every day, it just carries out throughout the team."
One of the disappointments from the second scrimmage was penalty discipline or lack thereof. There were multiple off-sides penalties by the offensive line, which was not what Dooley was looking for. But for the head coach the continued issues of his team being bothered by the littlest of things is what's most troubling.
"I think some of the penalty issues are not as much on the players as they are on some of the newness, some things we can do as coaches to minimize them, so they're little ticky-tack stuff that can be easily cleaned up," Dooley said. "They're not from laziness, that sort of thing, so I'm not as concerned about that. But the mental outlook is the biggest thing. When things get a little tough, in a scrimmage, in a game, how do we respond to it. That's something we did not do, and really we haven't done it well in two years, it's been a little disappointing and it's something I've always taken a little pride in as a coach. You know, we were able to do it pretty good at (Louisiana) Tech and we need to be able to do that here. That's when it gets tough, find a way to grit out a victory."
OUT THE DOOR?
With three practices left counting the Orange and White game, Dooley made it clear to everyone that no one will be checking out early as he challenged his team.
"In fact, we made a real point not to stick one foot out the door here this last week. We have three practices and we have another game, so this is a real important week to show improvement," Dooley offered. "We had every player identify two things that they need to improve upon the most in the last week, and we even keep moving some things around to evaluate players. This is another week, and it's an important week."
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