football Edit

Bigger but better? On RT Marcus Tatum working to hold off a 5-star freshman

Marcus Tatum has heard the jokes for more than three years.

“Why’d you recruit him?,” Tennessee’s redshirt junior said, shaking his head. “Every time.”

The Sunshine State native arrived to play offensive tackle for the Vols weighing “240 pounds, maybe,” becoming the poster-child for for former head coach Butch Jones’ infatuation with undersized linemen.

“But now, it’s different,” Tatum said, smiling.

Perhaps.

Inarguably, Tatum has completely transformed his body through sheer will and hard work under strength and conditioning coordinator Craig Fitzgerald. As a freshman, Tatum lined up against Alabama at under 260 pounds. Three years — and three strength coaches — later, he’s currently working as Tennessee’s starting right tackle weighing 320 in fall camp. Tatum’s metamorphosis from a gangly 6-6 freshman who looked like skinny tight end to an actual SEC lineman has been remarkable and well-documented. It took midnight peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and extra lifts with Fitzgerald’s staff.

“I trusted the staff. I changed, but I still feel just as fast. Stronger, but not fat and flubbery,” Tatum said. (Fitzgerald) got me past that make or break point. … I ended at 21 percent (body fat) and I feel like I kept the same athleticism.”

The question is whether that last line is actually true, and what it means for Tatum to hold off 5-star freshman Darnell Wright for Tennessee’s starting right tackle job? While Tatum has gained the weight, how well does he move with it? Will it be enough to beat out perhaps the most physically gifted lineman on the team?

Last season, Tatum was right around 300 pounds and did not flash the same agility and quick feet that intrigued Jones’ staff all those years ago. He played in 12 games, starting the final five of the season at left tackle. He finished as Tennessee’s worst pass-blocker on a per-snap basis, per Pro Football Focus. He allowed 18 pressures, most on the team. And although it was just one spring scrimmage, Tatum had issues pass protecting in the Orange & White Game, too.

Still, Tatum believes he’s a bigger and better player already this fall. He’s stronger in his lower body and says he finally feels like “my feet and weight distribution are right.”

Marcus Tatum in 2017 working with then-Tennessee offensive line coach Walt Wells.
Marcus Tatum in 2017 working with then-Tennessee offensive line coach Walt Wells.

Throughout the first week of fall camp, he’s maintained his spot with the 1s at right tackle ahead of Wright. He’s a consummate teammate and the staff loves his work ethic and maturity. But for a team likely to lean on upside, can Tatum truly beat out one of the more promising prospects in the last few classes? Tennessee’s schedule doesn’t do the veteran many favors, either, as three non-conference games give Will Friend plenty of opportunities to get Wright ready for SEC play.

For what it’s worth right now, Tatum isn’t shying away from the challenge and plans on holding onto his spot.

“Nobody should be scared of competition, or you’re in the wrong conference,” Tatum said.

“We’re all really in the same boat because we just got here with this staff and (Wanya Morris and Wright) just got here. We are all just continuing to work really hard. I love them both. I’ve been in the SEC and seen people go down all the time. I’m just bringing them along, teaching them just like they’re my little brothers and continuing to work as hard as I can.