KNOXVILLE - When Tennessee faces Alabama on Saturday, it will also be facing another change in the center of the offense. Sophomore Alex Bullard, who has started the first six games at left guard for the Vols, will switch places with sophomore James Stone and be responsible for snapping the ball to quarterback Matt Simms this weekend.
“We pour our hearts and souls into this program,” Bullard said of he and Stone. “We do whatever the coaches feel like gives us the best chance to win. They decided this week to put (James) at guard and me at center and we’re going to roll with that and see how it goes.”
Stone, meanwhile, will keep his role as a starter on the offensive line, at guard instead.
“If (the coaches) didn’t believe it gave us a better shot to win, I doubt they would be (making the change),” Bullard said. “We just have to trust them and we are rolling with it. I felt good today.”
Although Bullard has limited experience at his new position, he’s ready for the challenge.
“The only time I’ve really snapped the ball was for quarterback/center exchanges (in practice) and before games,” Bullard said. “Last week we worked on it a little bit in live situations, but still not the whole time. They called my number to snap the ball and I just need to come through.”
Elvis was famous for living by the motto, “Takin’ care of business.” For Tennessee, it’s about living by a much different version of ‘T.C.B.’
“They’re going to have to learn to take care of their bodies,” head coach Derek Dooley said. “How you recover is, of course you get in the training room, but then it’s also what you eat when you’re not around, how much sleep you’re getting at night and the fluids you’re putting in your body.
“All of that goes with maturity, understanding that your body is a machine and you have to treat it like that. You have to keep it oiled up. You have to give it good rest. You have to clean out the system. They’ll learn that. You have to learn that because you have no other option.”
“Takin’ care of bodies” is important, especially as the schedule begins to take its toll.
“This is about the time of year where the physical nature of the game, you start feeling it a little bit on your body,” Dooley said. “It’s so important to accept that it’s not going to be easy and accept that this is a part of football. Your body will adjust to the amount of stress that you put on it.
“It’s going to be especially important that our young freshmen understand that because it gets hard when you get deep into the season. But we keep hitting and we keep practicing with the same practice structure. We believe it builds your strength so that was kind of our point of emphasis today.”
IN THE FAST LANE
Freshman tailback Marlin Lane Jr. has made an instant impact in his first college season. The Daytona Beach native became the first Vol to score touchdowns in his first three games of his career since Reggie Cobb in 1987, to start the season. With this strong scoring start, Lane has begun to feel more comfortable in recent games as he ran for a career-best 43 yards vs. LSU. That came on the heels of a six-catch, 84-yard performance vs. Georgia.
“He’s run better and better, especially the last two games,” said Coach Derek Dooley. “He’s showed some good ability in the early games. He’s running a little bit better but he’s still not near capable of what he’s capable of doing. (There are) a lot of technical issues. Sometimes he plays too high and sometimes guesses a little bit, but he’s getting better and better.
“I think a lot of his ailments are natural going through the season of college football as a running back. It’s hard. You get hit a lot and learning to embracing it, ‘Hey, that’s part of it.’ Most guys, when they come out of high school, they expect to feel great all the time. It doesn’t happen like that.”
Lane has taken some time to get used to the pace of the SEC.
“It’s a lot faster, everybody is fast, it’s not just one or two guys, a lot of the technique you have to learn,” said Lane, who met with the media for the first time on Tuesday. “I’m trying to get comfortable trying to execute, it’s so fast. Just books and books, learning and learning.”
Lane has gained 410 all-purpose yards including 139 rushing yards and 141 receiving yards.
“I’m running it a lot better as the weeks go by,” Lane said. I’m just looking forward to keep going.”
Sophomore Ja’Wuan James knows how difficult being an impact player as a true freshman can be, as he started all 13 games last year.
“It’s very difficult to make that transition,” James said. “I see Marlin, he keeps working, he keeps finding a way to make a play. I talk to him a bunch, whatever happens, just accept it and keep going. The coaches might get on you, but keep going working hard and something good will happen.”
BIG TEST FOR D-LINE
A week after facing the offensive line that has allowed the fewest sacks in the SEC, in LSU, the Vols will do battle against another mammoth offensive line. The Crimson Tide have allowed just three sacks in their last three games, all in SEC competition.
Alabama’s line averages 313 pounds compared the Vols defensive line that doesn’t have a starter weighing more than 300 pounds. Defensive tackle Malik Jackson weighs in at 270 and knows the challenge at hand.
“We know we are undersized but we don’t use that as an excuse,” Jackson said. “We go out there and play like we are 400 pounds and that’s what you have got to do in this league. You’ve got to go out and play big and that’s what we do.”
Tennessee has been working to generate more pass rush as the Vols have just nine sacks in six games in 2011.
“We just need more work,” said Jackson. “We’ve got a lot of young guys on our defensive line. Sometimes the competition isn’t easy, so we’ve just got to keep working and practice at it, and one day it will come.”
One younger player that has made great strides is sophomore Daniel Hood, who posted his first-career sack against LSU last week.
“Danny has come a long way,” Jackson said. “In the spring he didn’t really know what he wanted to do and now he is out here and has started for six games. He is playing really well, I couldn’t be more happy with him.”
SIMMS HELPING RUN GAME
When Tennessee was looking for answers in the run game, not many solutions started with the quarterback position.
In Matt Simms’ first game back as the starting quarterback for Tennessee after an injury to Tyler Bray, however, the Vols rushed for 111 yards against the No. 1 team in the country. That total marked the second-most rushing yards LSU has allowed this season and was a dramatic improvement for the Big Orange which had yet to rush for positive yardage against an SEC opponent.
According to Dooley, the switch to Simms at quarterback had more than a little to do with that transformation.
“Matt helps you in the run game,” Dooley said. “It’s one of his strengths by trying to get you in good looks. He gives you a better schematic advantage. He has an ability to recognize fronts and know what to run and where to run it. When you are a good running team that is what you have to do. You can’t just call a play and hope it works. You have to be able to count it, so he helps us in that.
“Matt has the capability of (checking into correct running plays) and we try and shape our plan around our players. Sometimes that slows Tyler down and then it starts affecting him throwing the ball when he is sitting there using all of his energy trying to figure out what to do with the run. And Tyler knows that. I think it is experience. Some guys see things more naturally than others and Tyler when he drops back in the pocket, he naturally sees things that a lot of quarterbacks don’t. Conversely, Matt sees things in the run game that Tyler doesn’t.”
For Simms, the key to success on the ground is simple.
“Just understanding what we want to execute on each and every play,” Simms said. “Understanding what the coaches want out of every play and then from there making sure we actually get it done and execute it right. There are a bunch of things that we need to do well for this game. I just have to refocus and make sure I do that.”
Freshman Tailback Marlin Lane Jr.
(On his relationship with Tauren Poole)
“He’s helping me and I’m helping him. We are pushing each other trying to get this run game going.”
(On his biggest surprise about coming to Tennessee)
“Running out of the T and seeing 100,000-plus after playing in front of 12,000 in high school. There were a lot of people watching in high school, but not as much as Neyland Stadium.”
(On who he models his game after)
“I always watch Adrian Peterson. I watch highlights of him every day. I try to hit the hole fast like he does. I’m hoping to be where he is at in a couple of more years.”
(On what has been the toughest part of college ball)
“Blitz pick-up, working on blitz pick-up. I didn’t have to block that much in high school, but I worked on it. When I got here in for fall camp it was every day picking up linebackers going full speed.”
Sophomore Ja’Wuan James
(On focusing on an improved run game vs. LSU)
“That was our main objective (Coach Dooley) kept saying: to execute a play. Forget about the last play, execute in those six seconds in the play and between the 25 seconds (for the next play) forget about the last one and get ready for the next one.”
(On the offensive line’s philosophy)
“Coach Hiestand wants us to focus more on sustaining mentally throughout the whole game. We just keep grinding and do what we’ve been doing every single day. We’re progressively getting better.”
(On the offensive line being successful against LSU compared to Georgia and Florida)
“Basically in the Georgia and Florida games we were not getting the job done. We would get out played sometimes and out worked. We really wanted to focus on LSU and go out there and hit them in the mouth.”
(On Alabama’s defense)
“They’ve got a great defense. LSU was a great defense so we’ve got to go out there and hit them in the mouth for all four quarters.”
Senior Defensive Lineman Malik Jackson
(On being consistent defensively with Alabama like the first half against LSU)
“We just need to come out and play hard. We know what they want to do, they want to use (RB Trent Richardson) to run the ball or throw him a route. We’ve just got to go out there and play our keys for all four quarters and play tough.”
(On being able to shut down opponents run games)
“Coach Thompson has really been depending on us to really work hard and close the ‘A-gaps’ and ‘B-gaps’ and that’s what we’ve been doing. We come out here every day and work hard on the dummies and it starts to come naturally.”
Junior Defensive Back Prentiss Waggner
(On Alabama RB Trent Richardson)
“He’s the number one priority. On film he looks like he is in a league of his own. He’s a top tier guy who has a pretty good chance at winning the Heisman. He’s a top playmaker.
(On only having to key off of one player against Alabama where LSU had two playmakers)
“That is one of the better situation we are in right now. We don’t have to worry about the quarterback draw or the speed option. That will be an advantage for us.”
(On lessons learned from LSU’s downhill attack)
“We learned we have got to stay aggressive throughout all four quarters. We’ve got to play good, sound defense and play gap football every down for 60 minutes.”
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)