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May 23, 2012

Breaking down the interior OL

There's no more veteran group on Tennessee's roster than its offensive line, which as head coach Derek Dooley has noted throughout spring and across the Big Orange Caravan now boasts nearly 100 career starts.

Furthermore, the unit seemingly has embraced and raced forward under the tutelage of first-year offensive line coach Sam Pittman, whose units at North Carolina were consistent performers with solid talent.

Winding down our position-by-position breakdowns, we focus today on the interior of the Vols' offensive line. We'll wrap things up moving forward with the tackles up front for Pittman and then conclude the series soon with the specialists.

Breaking down the interior OL:
Starter: Alex Bullard, center, 6-2, 304, JR

Improved: Added strength was apparent throughout spring, as was Bullard's command of the front five.

Summer target: Continue to build on strength gains and overall knowledge of the offense.

Starter: Dallas Thomas, left guard, 6-5, 300, SR

Improved: Physicality and showed quick grasp of new position.

Summer target: Keep adding strength and comfort at new interior spot following two years starting at tackle.

Starter: Zach Fulton, 6-5, 319, JR or James Stone, 6-3, 310, JR

Improved: Fulton missed a chunk of spring but is the best shape of his career. Stone was a great deal stronger and more confident.

Summer target: Fulton must continue to thrive under S&C coach Ron McKeefery while Stone needs to continue enhancing his strength and comfort at guard.

Backups: Marcus Jackson, Mack Crowder

Improved: Jackson - arrived as one of the team's strongest players and now has a greater knowledge after a trial-by-fire 2011 rookie campaign; Crowder - much, much stronger and heavier.

Summer target: Jackson --- most be mindful of his frame and conditioning while continuing to become more comfortable in all aspects of the Vols' offense. Crowder has gotten stronger but must adjust to utilize that strength, gain more strength and sustain blocks. Showed big strides and plays with a good head.

Alex Bullard - The redshirt junior is among the Vols' better liked players. Bullard just has an easygoing persona that allows his teammates to relate to him. Yet he's extremely intelligent and is really gaining a good mental control of the offense and improving at reading the levels of the defense. The big improvement has been in Bullard's strength --- a key on the offensive front as a whole --- and will be an area that, given the stout interiors of so many SEC defensive lines, Bullard must continue to focus on, as well as keeping the OL unit very cohesive and on the same page through the summer months.

Dallas Thomas - More than a few folks believe Thomas' shift from left tackle to left guard not only helps the Vols' immediate future but also Thomas' as a potential pro. The shift went better than expected by most accounts, including very recent ones from Derek Dooley on the Big Orange Caravan. Thomas really grafted to the position well and also is a strong presence between Bullard at center and Tiny Richardson at left tackle. Thomas simply most continue to refine his level of comfort at a new post after starting 25 games at tackle across the 2010-11 seasons.

Zach Fulton - Despite missing part of spring camp with a foot injury, Fulton quickly transitioned back into a factor at the right guard spot he has manned for about 18 consecutive games. Long the largest of the Vols' maulers up front, Fulton has streamlined his frame and told VolQuest.com in spring camp that he was as trimmed down and in the best shape of his team here. Impressive for a guy who battled injury. He must continue to add to that strength and play with an extremely physical, nasty disposition play after play. There's a belief Fulton is a future pro; the key is showing it each and every play.

James Stone - Kudos to Stone, a really outstanding young man on the Vols' team; just a model player in so many aspects. Stone overcame the disappointment, personal and team, that he felt following last season with his struggles from the center position and began to show real promise at guard. Early on he even did some work at tackle, making clear to his coaches and teammates he'd do anything to get on the field and help the Vols. His strength is way up, but it must absolutely get better and he, too, must have a violent approach to dominate on every snap.

Marcus Jackson - Jackson has been among the strongest Vols up front from his first days on campus. Literally. Shortly into his opening semester on campus, Jackson registered strength numbers among the top couple of players on the Vols' offense. He's maintained that strength well, but he needs to continue to focus on moving better and honing all aspects of his game. He'd start for plenty of teams around college football and can definitely help UT this season.

Mack Crowder - Give Crowder plenty of credit for embracing and making the most of his redshirt season. He told me late in camp that he'd added at least 10, maybe a few more pounds to his frame but really emphasized how much strength he had gained working with Ron McKeefery. Crowder must continue to build upon that strength and focus on locking onto and keeping his blocks. He's added strength and size, but he isn't quite where he needs to be in this brutal conference. Great head on his shoulder, good eye for the game. Just keep working that strength and reading the levels of the defense. That's a key at the center position.

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