KNOXVILLE — Zach Fulton and Ja'Wuan James met each other in January of their junior years in high school, when the two offensive linemen participated at the underclassmen combine at the 2009 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
The recruiting process, countless practices and four years of starting side-by-side on the right side of Tennessee's offensive line later, the duo now appears headed their separate ways with the NFL draft a little more than a month away.
Perhaps for one final time, though, Fulton and James, along with the rest of the Volunteers' starting offensive line from 2013, shared the field during Tennessee's pro day on Wednesday.
"I think we're gonna end up on the same team somehow," James said with a laugh after the five linemen sweated through a grueling hour of drills conducted by scouts. "That's what everybody keeps saying. They're like, 'We been playing together so long that somebody's gonna take both of us.' It's definitely been fun playing next to him.
"We've got to go our separate ways now."
James the right tackle, Fulton the right guard and center James Stone were all part of Tennessee's 2010 recruiting class, and Fulton and James began classes the day after former coach Lane Kiffin infamously bolted for the Southern California job.
The two actually met a year earlier and have been nearly inseparable ever since.
"Once we both committed to Tennessee," Fulton recalled, "he texted me, 'Hey bro, you trying to be roommates?' I texted him back and I was like, 'Yeah, we're gonna need a lot of groceries, though.'"
James started all 49 games of his Tennessee career, and Fulton was just to his left for 40 of them, and Stone was a little further down at center of left guard for 39.
Stone said he met both future teammates before he got to Tennessee, so the trio go way back.
"It's just going to be different," Stone said. "I really don't know. Since I've been at the highest level of playing competition, I've always had those guys beside me, but you grow and you're moving forward and going on in your career.
"Maybe we'll end up together, or maybe we'll get to see each other along the way, but you just look forward to the process."
Though left tackle Antonio Richardson long has been regarded the best NFL prospect on Tennessee's talented offensive line, James far and away moved the best during Wednesday's drills. He's trimmed 10 pounds off his 6-foot-6 frame while training in Florida and with former NFL tackle Bob Whitfield in Atlanta, and it showed on Wednesday.
James said he has one-day visits scheduled with 13 different teams this month.
"I definitely helped by staying and coming back," he said. "I just went out there and tried to compete and do the best I can for myself and for Tennessee. All my resume is on the film, so they look at it and they take it how they see it."
The knock on Richardson coming out of the NFL combine in February was his knee problems, and the left tackle admitted he played last season at 65 percent and confidently added he would have been "first-team All-American" if fully healthy.
With all 32 NFL teams represented, Richardson recorded a 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-foot, 4-inch broad jump on Wednesday and remains confident heading into May's draft.
"My expectation is first round," he said. "Nobody knows. Everybody's pretty sure where all these other guys are going that have been slotted as first-rounders, but I've heard from people just coming to me, 'This is guy's got you in the top 20. This guy's got you in the top 25. Oh, now you're in the top 50.'
"It fluctuates. You never really know. I'm just gonna keep my faith and continue to move forward."
Richardson said he's met with between 16 and 18 NFL teams during the draft process.
"The only thing that's been stressful is that you have no control over anything," he said. "You don't know what teams are really thinking. One team may say they have interest in you, and they may not. The team that shows you the least interest may be the most interested in you. We'll see over time what happens, so I'm not stressing.
Defensive tackle Daniel McCullers said he has trimmed down to 348 pounds.
"It's been a while," he said when asked the last time he weighed that little. "Probably since high school."
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock moved McCullers to the No. 5 defensive tackle spot in his positional rankings earlier this week.
Though he handled all three specialist duties for the Vols in 2013, Michael Palardy is focusing his preparations for the next level at punter, and he showed why on Wednesday.
In front of scouts, Palardy's average on a handful of punts neared 50 yards, and his shortest was 45 yards. He told the Times Free Press he's already worked out for the New England Patriots and has had scouts tell him he has an NFL leg.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...