AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's offensive linemen don't bother to downplay their expectations.
They know they have as much experience as just about any line in college football, and say they can be as good as any line in the nation.
"I feel like we definitely have the talent and capability to have the best offensive line, really, in the country," offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "We've just got to work every day to get that. We want to set our bar high."
That's a pretty bold comment for a team coming off a third straight losing season, but James has facts to back up his optimism.
Tennessee returns four starters from a line that allowed only eight sacks last season. The only Football Bowl Subdivision teams to give up a lower sack total were North Texas and Middle Tennessee, which each attempted over 100 fewer passes than the Volunteers.
The Vols rushed for 160.3 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry last year, significant increases from their 2011 averages of 90.1 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry.
But those statistics don't mean anything to new offensive line coach Don Mahoney, who previously worked on new head coach Butch Jones' staffs at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Mahoney cites Tennessee's 5-7 record last year as evidence more improvement is needed.
"It boils down to this - winning football games," Mahoney said. "It's not about what was done statistically. That's what drives me nuts. Especially as an offensive line, there's only one stat that matters, and that's winning, bottom line."
The linemen agree. This senior-dominated group has grown tired of losing and realizes it must lead a young offense.
Tennessee expects to have at least six players from its 2012 offense drafted next month. The Vols are breaking in a new starting quarterback and don't return any wideouts who caught more than 13 passes last season. The line must perform well to make up for Tennessee's inexperience at the skill positions.
"We came up playing on this offensive line together, and this is our third or fourth year together," center James Stone said. "It's real important for us to take some of the burden off some of these guys where it's their first time getting out there, to try to lead as positive role models."
Stone, James and guard Zach Fulton give the Tennessee offensive line three seniors with a combined 92 starts. Tennessee also returns junior Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, a second-team all-Southeastern Conference selection last season. Richardson is participating in spring workouts on a limited basis as he recovers from minor offseason knee surgery.
Tennessee must replace likely draft pick Dallas Thomas at one guard spot, but the top candidates for the job have starting experience. Alex Bullard started 12 games in 2011 and two more last season, while Marcus Jackson made five starts in 2011.
All that experience on the line creates plenty of expectations.
"They're solid players, but they've got to play better than they did a year ago," Mahoney said. "Last year wasn't good enough. That's the challenge for me. That's a challenge for them that they have to understand. I hit it home to them every chance possible, that it wasn't good enough. We've got to play beyond that. We've got to work that much harder to do things better than we did a year ago."
Tennessee's linemen have lost weight to adjust to the faster pace of Jones' offense. Mahoney estimated the linemen collectively have dropped about 80 pounds.
For example, Fulton was listed as 324 pounds last season, but he said he weighed up to 336 during the offseason. Fulton's down to 320 now and can't imagine how he'd have adjusted to Jones' uptempo practices if he still weighed 336.
"I would have passed out, basically," Fulton said.
James said he has lost about 20 pounds and is down to 315 after cutting out late-night snacks and switching from sports drinks to water. He believes the weight loss should lead to better performance late in games.
"Definitely, there were a lot of opportunities we didn't take advantage of in the fourth quarter last year," James said. "That was really a big factor in the results of our season. It starts with the o-line. The mistakes we make affect everyone else, affect the whole offense."
Their test is to avoid gaining weight during spring break before the Vols resume spring practice next week. Mahoney's critiques warn the linemen that they can't get complacent. Yes, the linemen had a good season last year. But that 5-7 record shows they weren't quite good enough.
"We're in a position in which that's it," Mahoney said. "It doesn't matter how many yards, stats, this, that and the other. At the end of the day, let's go and win ballgames. Period."
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