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August 8, 2014
In Thomas they trust
Ask Coleman Thomas about his "culture shock" --- from playing center at Fort Chiswell High School in middle-of-nowhere Max Meadows, Va., to starting right tackle in the Southeastern Conference in a matter of months --- and the word that continually comes up is trust.
"I've just been working hard and trusting that the coaches are going to put the right guys on the field in order for us to win," Thomas said after practice Thursday, fielding question after question about that transition.
"I'm trusting in my coaching and hopefully it will all pay off."
The trust has been a two-way street. Thomas trusting in his coaches' personnel decisions, his coaches trusting in his ability to adapt, as a true freshman no less, to a position he had never previously played.
"It was overwhelming that they were giving me a chance," Thomas said. "I think I can remember the first day of spring practice, they were giving me this chance.
"I kept working hard, and I trust they're going to put the right guys on the field."
The overwhelming change wasn't just the move from high school center to Tennessee tackle, it was learning how to pass block --- a skill as foreign to Thomas at Fort Chiswell as playing tackle was.
"We ran the ball, I'm gonna say, nine out of 10 times in high school," Thomas said. "That was the hardest thing to get a grasp of, learning how to pass block and all the different techniques.
"I think I've made strides from the spring, and I think I'm gonna keep getting better."
Tennessee's coaching staff approached Thomas late last fall about the possibility of playing tackle. That's when the steep learning curve began.
"I saw him play twice in the recruiting process," Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney said Friday. "Being a center and being that tall was impressive, just how agile he was. He's not a guy that moves around like a guy that's 6-5 or 6-6."
"When the coaches told me I'm gonna have a chance to play right tackle," Thomas added, " it was late in my senior season. I started to get some pass reps, just to get the feel of it."
The feel of the position was the least of his problem when he enrolled at Tennessee in January. His head was swimming --- on the field, off the field, everywhere --- all the way into spring camp, where he was the first man up at right tackle from Day 1.
"In the spring it was a culture shock, coming form high school straight to college football," Thomas said. "The summer helped me, getting stronger in the weight room and just athletically being able to play at this level."
Thomas --- a three-sport athlete in high school, also playing basketball and baseball --- prides himself on his athleticism. And it's what caught the eyes of the Tennessee coaching staff.
"Coleman is very athletic," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Thursday. "And he's benefited from having a spring football under his belt.
"The overall consistency, the strength levels that's needed to play on the offensive line, he's really worked on that. But he's very, very athletic. And he has good toughness."
Thomas has added 25 pounds to help with that toughness, saying Thursday he's weighing in at 315, after Tennessee's three elder offensive linemen --- redshirt juniors Mack Crowder, Marcus Jackson and Kyler Kerbyson --- took him "under their wing" not long after he enrolled.
"They've showed me the ropes of what it takes to be an offensive lineman in this program," Thomas said.
But if the experience has been as overwhelming as he admits, he hasn't shown it.
"He's been calm with it," Kerbyson said. "When he first came in, he was a little frustrated, not knowing what he needed to know.
"Playing right next to him (at right guard), I've really helped him out. And he's starting to come into his own, he's starting to be more confident. Which really helps him out on the field."
With plenty of steps left to take, the transition is far from complete.
"He understands the offense," Mahoney said. "The next step he needs to take to be that much further along is really recognizing the defense.
" ... It's a matter of, in coaches' talk, the game slows down. And it's starting to a little bit for him, he's not overwhelmed like he initially was."
Whatever the coaches say, Thomas explained, getting back to that trust.
"I'm gonna take anything they tell me to do," he said. "If they tell me to stand on my head, I'm gonna do it, just to try."