Spring Seven Countdown: No. 3


We're taking a look at the top seven offensive and defensive players on Tennessee's roster who made a leap this spring. Here are the four installments we've gone through so far.

Now, let's take a look at the offensive and defensive players who come in at No. 3 on our "best of the spring" list.

NO. 3

OFFENSE -- JAMES STONE JR. OFFENSIVE LINEMAN

You want a feel-good story for the spring? You've got them aplenty with guys like Jacob Carter and Steven Fowlkes. But another person you just have to feel good for -- simply because he's such a stand-up kid -- is Stone. This guy was wanted by the top programs in the country out of high school a couple years ago and chose to commit to Derek Dooley and Tennessee over Nick Saban and Alabama. He won playing time as a true freshman and was poised to take over as the starting center last year.

Then came the Florida game and Stone's snapping debacles. Originally recruited as a guard, Stone moved to center in 2009 as a necessity, but he had one problem: He was left-handed. This caused an odd exchange between he and the quarterback, so he spent the offseason learning to snap right-handed. Only problem was he struggled in shotgun snaps. Then, once it got in his head, Stone struggled on all snaps. He was so worried about snapping that it affected his blocking, and before long, he was getting routinely abused by SEC defensive linemen. Once he swapped places with Alex Bullard, Bullard caught onto the center role but Stone was mentally crushed. He lost his starting spot and was mired on the depth chart by the end of the season.

Though Stone is technically sound and a great kid, he was lacking in strength and has worked hard this offseason to build it. With incumbent starter Zach Fulton out for much of the spring with an injury, Stone worked with the first team and impressed for the most part. He still isn't quite as consistent and needs some more work in the weight room, but he will provide some competition this fall. At worst, Stone is working himself into a dependable role in the rotation. It's a welcome sign for the Vols who need quality depth on a line that struggled last season, and also a welcome sign for Stone -- an excellent person who loves the Vols and desperately wants to reach his potential. He's talented enough that his career can be salvaged and he can play on the next level, but everything needs to come together.

DEFENSE -- TRENT TAYLOR FR. DEFENSIVE LINEMAN

For the second spring in a row, an early enrollee from Florida who the Vols snatched from Miami came into school ready to play. Last year, it was guard Marcus Jackson, who wound up the strongest offensive lineman on the team. This season, it's Taylor -- who wasn't regarded as highly by some recruiting services but proved early and often that he belongs on the field maybe as early as this season.

Over the past year, Taylor has added some 40 solid pounds and is versatile enough to play inside and out on the defensive line in the Vols' 3-4 scheme. Even though he is definitely undersized at this point to play the interior, Taylor received meaningful reps this spring at nose tackle and held his own. At 6-foot-3, 277 pounds, Taylor has a frame that can still support more weight and is an intriguing prospect. Dooley said several times this spring that he expects Taylor to help the Vols out on the defensive line this season. That's a tall order for a freshman on the defensive line.

It seems the Lakeland, Fla., native was a steal -- and he came in strong and smart enough to grasp Sal Sunseri's scheme and work his way into the rotation. This is an important few months for Taylor leading up to the regular season to see if he can get bigger and stronger and keep working toward game snaps, but any time you get a player like this who is this young and contributing, it speaks volumes about the high school program he attended and the dedication he had to preparing himself -- and, in this case, his new body -- to perform at the highest level. Taylor should be a fun player to watch develop.

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