THE DIRECTOR: First-year UT assistant Sam Pittman, who held the same position previously at the University of North Carolina, where he recruited and coached five-star talents such as James Hurst and Kiaro Holts.
It could be argued that Sal Sunseri and Jay Graham were the best assistants the Vols hired this offseason. My vote is cast with Pittman. UNC's line was consistently stellar, and Pittman comes to Knoxville as perhaps one of the top two recruiters on UT's staff. He has a wealth of experience, and has worked with the offensive line or been an offensive coordinator every since coming into the collegiate coaching ranks in 1991. Last year, UNC was second in the ACC averaging 6.3 yards per rush behind his star-studded line.
THE CAST: 6-1, 280 Sr. Carson Anderson; 6-2, 310 Jr. Alex Bullard; 6-2, 275 Fr. Mack Crowder; 6-5, 330 Jr. Zach Fulton; 6-2, 301 Sr. Darin Gooch; 6-3, 326 So. Marcus Jackson; 6-6, 324 Jr. Ja'Wuan James; 6-5, 305 Fr. Kyler Kerbyson; 6-5, 310 So. Marques Pair; 6-6, 330 So. Antonio "Tiny" Richardson; 6-6, 333 Jr. JerQuari Schofield; 6-3, 308 Jr. James Stone; 6-5, 305 Sr. Dallas Thomas.
Look at all that talent. Then look at the discombobulated joke of an offensive line UT had last year out of the above group [which features eight four-star players] and tell me Harry Hiestand wasn't a major problem. That's why Pittman is so valuable, and that's why this spring is so important. Is there a possibility that the Vols simply missed on all those evaluations? Sure. There's an even better chance that Hiestand had communication issues with a unit who didn't like or respect him because of his sour disposition and verbal lashes and that the personable Pittman may be able to get the group to reach its potential. We'll know which it is this spring, but the Vols now have a quality coach with a proven track record coaching a bunch of highly-projected talent. Let's just hope the talented group didn't lose confidence in itself through the past season.
OFFSEASON BUZZ: The early reviews on the rapport between the players and coach Pittman are excellent. It is well-known that the linemen hated Hiestand and didn't respond well to him. What isn't known is whether that had a significant, direct impact on the on-the-field product last season. All of the talk this offseason has swarmed around Richardson and his immense talent, but Bullard also has drawn strong praise, as has Marcus Jackson. With sure starter Zach Fulton limited because of an injury, the door is open for others to impress this spring, and the Vols have plenty of options.
THE PLOT THICKENS [THREE SPRING STORYLINES]:
- Who Will Be the Starting Five? There are many, many options, but it looks like heading into camp that Alex Bullard will be the starting center with Zach Fulton at right guard and Ja'Wuan James at right tackle. On the left side, there could be a shake-up. Richardson's immense potential and awesome offseason has him [right now] penciled in as the starting left tackle with Dallas Thomas shifting down to guard. Of course, Stone and Jackson could work their way back into the lineup and should be firmly in the rotation.
- Just How Good Is Tiny Richardson? Folks are talking about him like he may be the greatest UT offensive lineman ever. The Vols basically wasted a year of his eligibility last year when he should have been redshirting, rarely playing any meaningful offensive snaps and mostly getting into games on the special teams lines. That is inexcusable. But now, Richardson is a lean 330 with very little body fat and having a spectacular season in the weight room. He has wowed folks enough to be considered a starter heading into spring with a deep group around him. There is a certain wow factor with the legend surrounding him where everybody wants to know just what level of talent he can be. We'll get our first in-depth look at it this spring.
- Will Sam Pittman Really Make That Big A Difference? The Vols didn't sign an offensive lineman. This is the same group that was embarrassing last year. Hiestand, in my opinion, should be considered a major scapegoat, but we'll see quickly enough if he's the reason. Time is running out on this "lauded" group of UT offensive linemen, and there's simply no excuse for the Vols running the football the way they did last year. With an emphasis on the ground game this spring, it is essential that some good vibes trickle down through the unit and some confidence is inspired in that group. The Vols have to strike a balance to be offensively successful, and this line has to pick things up quickly.
CLOSING CREDITS: Along with the running backs, this was one of the two most embarrassing units from last season. A coach can make a major difference, but that alone isn't going to change anything. I'm not sure this group has enough confidence in itself after last season. Yeah, even if the line has had a good offseason in the strength and conditioning department, that means nothing if it doesn't translate onto the line of scrimmage. There is talent, experience, depth ... in short, there's no reason for the Vols' offensive line to be as terrible as it was last year. This is not only a big spring for turning that around but also for showing themselves that they aren't as awful as they were during that forgettable 2011 season.
Missed the other installments?