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July 31, 2013

Stone foundation along Vols' line



Between four quarterbacks there are three career starts.

Between two running backs there's 15 career starts.

Between a host of new names fighting for snaps at wide receiver, there isn't a single career start to go around.

But on the offensive line, one of the best in the Southeastern Conference in 2012, there's 118 career starts.

So when terms like 'accountability,' 'cohesion' and 'focus' are thrown around during a pre-training camp press conference, that's where it all starts, with a young, unproven team's most proven, veteran group.

"That puts a lot on our shoulders," James Stone, the anchor and center of the Tennessee line, said Wednesday. "We do have more experience than most the guys on offense, so I feel like most the guys look to us when they get tired, in times of adversity.

"We're going to be the guys that they look to show that it's OK, that we're going to pull through this. That's how we kind of rely on each other, hold each other accountable."

That reliability, that looking up front for continued focus through a grueling offseason, started in the spring and moved through summer workouts ― at night under the Neyland Stadium lights running 52 110s as a team; or in the deep end of a pool, treading water while taking a sweatshirt off and putting it back on, over and over.

"It puts you in a situation where you had to be there for your teammates," Stone said. "You had to be somebody your teammates could depend on.

"In other situations, I had to be a leader. I had to be able to step back and try to figure out the decision that was going to be the best for my team to accomplish the mission."

It's hard to argue Stone hasn't been through nearly every situation possible.

After signing in 2010 ― along with line-mates Zach Fulton and Ja'Wuan James ― to replenish a depleted line, he was expected to start from Day 1. He did. Then he lost his job. Then he earned it back.

Stone shook off the snapping struggles that sidelined him over the last half of 2011 to lead a 2012 offensive line that gave up just eight sacks in 12 games ― despite seven losses ― to help the Vols finish second in the SEC in both total offense and passing offense.

But the stats from a year ago are in the rear view mirror, much like the 5-7 record.

Instead, it's a renewed focus on doing whatever necessary, whenever it's necessary, to win games ― beginning and ending with "the process" instilled by Butch Jones.

"You get confidence through the process," Stone said, "through going everyday and trying to win everyday.

"You'll feel your team getting better and you'll see your team getting better. I feel like that's how we're going to build our confidence, through everyday focusing on improving."

Stone said he's seen that, starting with Justin Worley organizing summer throwing sessions with a list of no-name receivers, or from the work put in by what he called three "capable" running backs in Rajion Neal, Marlin Lane and Alden Hill.

And if there's ground to be made up on Stone's line, the ground game is where it starts. The Vols were eighth in the SEC in 2012 in rushing offense at 160.3 yards per game.

They'll need more production on the ground in 2013, if for nothing more than to buoy a quarterback and a receiving corp that will be learning on the fly.

That's where the focus has been for Stone and company.

"There's a lot of emphasis on [an improved run-game], because we do have a younger group of receivers and we do have three backs that are capable of carrying the ball very well," Stone said.

"It's actually exciting as an offensive line when you have three backs that you can trust to carry the rock."

But whether it was extra work on running the football, or running 110s on a summer night, or the deep end of the pool, the focus is there, Stone said, starting with an offensive line that's been there before.

"I feel like as a team, we really fixed our focus. I feel like we have a lot more attention to detail. I feel like guys are starting to understand that you have to hold each other accountable."


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