ELIZABETHTON --- Hardly for the first time, Derek Dooley doesn't want to make too big a deal out of the players who hit the field first at a given position on his Tennessee football team.
In this instance, it's along the Vols' offensive front. While Antonio Richardson, Dallas Thomas, James Stone, Zach Fulton and Ja'Wuan James have consistently been the team's opening five, Dooley insists he places sophomore guard Marcus Jackson in that grouping.
"Marcus is doing really good. He's having a great camp," Dooley said Monday following the Vols' first workout at Milligan College. "Of course, so is Dallas. But we consider (Jackson) a starter."
Barring injury to Stone at center, Jackson appears to be positioning himself as Tennessee's first lineman off the bench. He owns five careers starts, 12 games' experience and 2011 Freshman All-SEC honors.
Now, Jackson explains, he also feels better than ever thanks to his offseason workout regimen.
"All season I really focused on losing a lot of weight and leaning out," said Jackson, 6-2, 315 pounds. "So I definitely feel more explosive and fast now."
Jackson also is more clearly seeing the entire offensive picture courtesy his experiences as a true freshman and a full year on campus.
"It's definitely a lot better and quicker; you can focus on a lot more little things and learn the big picture in the offense instead of it always being a grind," said the Vero Beach, Fla., product. "You can pick it out and have fun now."
Jackson is daily picking out areas to improve, a manifesto the Vols' coaches encourage at every position.
"Camp's been going alright; just trying to get better every day. Come out with a good attitude and just pick one thing to get better at every day," Jackson explained.
"Pass pro, I've got to get better on that. Punch, and coming out there in the run. Things with the left steps, right steps, leverage."
Dooley is seeing Jackson's improvement on the practice field roughly one-third through camp.
"It depends on who we lose, but yeah, right now he's playing really well," Dooley said. "He's playing good football."
CHANNING MANNING UP
With Herman Lathers held out of Saturday's scrimmage as a precautionary measure, Channing Fugate got extensive work at the Mike linebacker position Lathers typically occupies.
A fullback through most of his first two seasons at Tennessee, Fugate has transformed into a linebacker and responded in the scrimmage with a half-dozen tackles, including one for a 12-yard loss.
"It felt pretty good to go out there and make some plays," Fugate said. "There's a lot of things I've got to work on, and we corrected it on film. I've just got to go back out there and keep making plays.
"I'm getting more comfortable with it. At first, it was a little bit harder. I'm glad I'm learning Mike and Will so I can know both inside linebackers and help out the defense more if I know both."
Dooley reiterated his praise of Fugate's work but also maintained depth is a concern for the Vols at linebacker, particularly behind the veteran Lathers.
"Yeah, Channing is doing good. But we're really short," Dooley said. "We need to get Christian Harris back (from an ACL injury). That (lack of depth) is a concern."
Dooley declined to discuss specific options for the Vols should an injury arise but indicated coaches have had discussions to
play for various scenarios.
"Well, we've got a lot of contingency plans. We've got a lot of them," Dooley said. "But right now, it's Herman and A.J. (working in the middle spots)."
Fugate is picking Lathers' brain as much as possible to expedite his training at the spot.
"He's been really helpful. If any of the linebackers have a question, you can ask Herm and he'll help you with anything. He's just been really helpful," Fugate explained.
"He really is [like an on-field coach]. He knows the playbook in and out. He knows a lot, so we look to him if we have a question out on the field.
"We put a lot of time in the film room, and you can put a lot of time in the film room, but what really helps is coming out here on the field and working every day. Doing both, that's what really matters."
Fugate, however, is carving an additional role on special teams, an area where he began to regain coaches' trust through the close of the 2011 season after losing his starting fullback post to Ben Bartholomew.
"I want to be a real big teams guy," Fugate said. "Teams, if you're big on teams, that helps the team out a lot and I just want to help out as much as I can."
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