Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones uses a microphone to speak to players during the Vols' opening scrimmage of the fall 2013 season at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013. (AP Photo)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's offensive linemen savor the challenge they're facing and the attention they're receiving.
The Volunteers return four starters from a line that allowed only eight sacks last season. Because Tennessee lacks star power at the skill positions, offensive tackles Antonio "Tiny" Richardson and Ja'Wuan James rank alongside linebacker A.J. Johnson as the Volunteers' most recognizable names.
Richardson and James are part of the line that leads an offense without much experience anywhere else. The Vols have a new starting quarterback and must replace first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson and second-round selection Justin Hunter in the receiving corps.
"It's a lot of responsibility, but the biggest thing is there's not any pressure," Richardson said. "We've been together so long, the cohesiveness is there."
Richardson, a junior, is the line's lone non-senior starter and a potential first-round draft pick. James has started every game since he arrived on campus. Center James Stone has 27 career starts. Guard Zach Fulton has started 29 games. Alex Bullard, a Notre Dame transfer who started 12 games in 2011 and primarily worked as a reserve last year, replaces Miami Dolphins third-round draft pick Dallas Thomas at the other guard spot.
Stone says they want to establish themselves as the best offensive line in the country. Teammates believe that's a realistic goal.
"They look like what everyone perceives them to be," running back Rajion Neal said. "They're animals. They're straight beasts up front. That's what we need, and that's what we're going to depend on."
North Texas and Middle Tennessee were the only Football Bowl Subdivision teams to allow fewer sacks than Tennessee last year, yet the Vols didn't have a single lineman earn first-team all-Southeastern Conference honors from the league's media or coaches.
Tennessee's linemen are getting much more attention now, but additional accolades will come with more victories. The Vols open the season Aug. 31 against Austin Peay.
"There is a chip on their shoulder with everything," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "So much has been made about each guy and their skill set, what they've done and how talented they are. But still, in the end, as I've told them, it boils down to us as a team, as a school, as a program, all those things. They get that."
Tennessee's new coaching staff is finding ways to make sure this group doesn't get caught up in preseason acclaim. Mahoney said the line must start creating running room as well as it protects the quarterback.
His linemen have taken heed.
"It's always great to keep the quarterback clean, but it's only half of the job, as everybody knows," Stone said. "I feel like this year it's an opportunity to go back there and prove we can run block as well as pass block."
At one point in training camp, Tennessee coach Butch Jones complained that "too many people want to crown" the linemen and said they "need to step it up." Just a few days later, Jones was marveling at how quickly and thoroughly they had responded to his message.
"They responded like I thought they would," Jones said. "They're very prideful."
Now they're ready to respond to suggestions that Tennessee will struggle to end a string of three straight losing seasons. The senior linemen have endured two coaching changes and plenty of upheaval. The one thing they haven't experienced is a winning season at Tennessee.
They're ready to change that.
"We've got to make the most of this," James said. "This is our last four months playing on the same team. It feels like we've been here forever playing together. So we're just trying to go out there each day in practice and work on something... so we can have no regrets at the end of the day."