KNOXVILLE—There were no crutches, no protective boots on either foot or slings holding his arm, but Ja’Wuan James still could do nothing but watch.
Tennessee’s sophomore right tackle would have preferred to spend all of spring football practice continuing the process of growing along with the rest of the Volunteers’ young offensive line, but a case of mononucleosis derailed his efforts after just four workouts.
The illness forced adjustments from James, the coaching staff and UT’s other linemen.
“It was really tough, but I had to accept it and make the best of it,” the 6-foot-6, 330-pounder said last week. “I sat down with [offensive line] Coach [Harry] Hiestand, and he gave me the scripts for each practice to stand behind and get mental reps every play.
“I feel like it benefited me game-wise, just seeing it and everything slowing down for me just standing by and watching it. I did mental reps to get better, but I certainly did miss it, watching everybody.”
For an offensive line that went through last season without an adequate backup for either tackle spot, James’ absence forced some shifting with tackle Marques Pair still recovering from offseason knee surgery and Daniel Hood switching to the defensive line.
“They’re a tight group,” Hiestand said during spring practice’s final week, “so he’s stuck with it and he’s stayed close to it. You’d like to have him on the field. That’s not the best situation, but we’ve done the best we can with it.”
Alex Bullard, a Notre Dame transfer who was cleared Thursday to play this fall, took most of the first-team reps at right tackle. Redshirt sophomore JerQuari Schofield, who spent most of spring battling with freshman Marcus Jackson for a first-team spot at left guard, also got some looks outside.
While he wasn’t able to play, James was able to do some coaching of his own.
“I felt a lot smarter about the game,” he said, “and I was helping coach Alex Bullard [and] also JerQuari Schofield. I was helping them, and it helped me.”
It also helped the Vols find out quickly what exactly they had in Bullard, a former four-star recruit out of Brentwood Academy who didn’t play much in two seasons at Notre Dame. Thus James’ absence might have been some kind of blessing in disguise.
“It’s not good, because Ja’Wuan’s a good football player, but it’s forced us to play a lot of other guys that have got in there and done very well,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said during the last week of spring practice. “Alex Bullard, we know what he can do and what he can’t do now, which we wouldn’t have known that if that wouldn’t have happened. It was good I think in a lot of ways.
“I hated that Ja’Wuan missed, because I thought after three or four days he was doing a lot of good things, but that’s life and you can’t control that.”
After he enrolled early last January, James was considered the eldest by experience of the Vols’ other two freshman starting linemen, center James Stone and Zach Fulton. Though Hiestand and UT coach Derek Dooley might still consider that group freshmen as opposed to sophomores in terms of developing consistency, James knows he and the other young linemen must continue building toward taking that next step. It’ll start this summer as the Vols’ large linemen try to add the right amount of strength to their frames.
“That’s one of the big parts: We want to buck up and get stronger just as a whole unit,” James said. “I know everybody’s saying we’re young, and we can’t keep that as an excuse. We’ve just got to keep working hard, but I feel like we made great strides, especially from last year being here at this time.
“We’ve just got to keep working over the summer, keep working in the film room and also keep working on the field just getting extra reps about technique and stuff like that.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...