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Spring synopsis: Center

Spring practice is history, and the dog days of summer workouts are on the horizon.

Tennessee's centers

Derek Dooley and his mostly-new coaching staff learned many things about their Tennessee Volunteers during a crucial month of work on Haslam Field and in Neyland Stadium. They answered some — but certainly not all — of the questions they needed to answer.

Let’s take a look at the spring and forecast the fall.

We’ll continue with the centers.

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THE CUPBOARD

Alex Bullard (6-2, 309, Jr.) — 15 career games, 12 starts. Played three games at Notre Dame in 2010 before transferring to UT and starting all 12 games last season. Can play all five positions up front but is now the first-team center.

Mack Crowder (6-2, 280, RFr.) — No game experience. Redshirted last season while practicing at center.

James Stone (6-3, 308, Jr.) — 21 career games, 17 starts. Has started at guard and center and was named a Freshman All-American in 2010 but struggled last season and lost his starting spot.

UT junior center Alex Bullard

Kyler Kerbyson (6-5, 305, RFr.) — No game experience. Redshirted last season. Can play guard or tackle.

Darin Gooch (6-2, 301, Sr.) — 12 career games, six starts. Started six games at center in 2010 but was shuffled out of the first unit late in the season. Played in just two games last season, and none after an early October blowout of Buffalo.

Carson Anderson (6-1, 280, Sr.) — 6 career games, no starts. Redshirted in 2008, played in five games in 2010 and appeared in last season’s blowout of Buffalo. Can play all five positions up front but doesn’t play much.

THEY’RE GONE: No one. Every significant contributor from every offensive line position is scheduled to return in 2012. Thomas is also the only senior expected to start this season, but several others will be draft-eligible juniors.

THEY’LL BE HERE: No one. UT’s Class of 2012 didn’t feature a single offensive lineman — which is rare — but Dooley said the Vols will hope to sign several O-linemen in the Class of 2013.

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THE SPRING SKINNY

It wasn’t so long ago that Tennessee didn’t have a single proven center and barely had a serviceable center on its roster.

UT redshirt freshman center Mack Crowder (left) works with versatile lineman James Stone.

Those days seem long gone, though.

Bullard, a Notre Dame transfer originally from the Nashville area, can play all five spots up front but became the team’s starting center midway through last season. He’s expected to retain that spot, but Crowder — a redshirt freshman from Upper East Tennessee — played well enough this spring for coaches to call that battle genuine competition.

Crowder’s fine play this spring meant the Vols didn’t have to give former starting center James Stone many reps at the position, and that allowed Stone to spend most of his time with the starters at right guard — where he’d been filling in for injured junior Zach Fulton. Stone, like Bullard, could play anywhere up front, but coaches prefer keeping things simple and allowing players to get comfortable at one or (maybe) two positions.

Gooch, a junior-college transfer who opened the 2010 season as UT’s starting center before giving way to Stone, spent most of his time this spring at reserve guard but could always go back to center in a pinch. That might not be necessary, though, because new offensive line coach Sam Pittman seemed very pleased with Kerbyson’s work at center this spring.

Pittman this spring suggested to govols247 that center might actually be Kerbyson’s best position at this point, but lack of quality depth forced him out to left tackle for the latter portions of the spring period.

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THE FALL FORECAST

If the Vols had a rash of injuries at center this fall — hopefully fans will forgive us for looking into the worst-possible scenario — they could, in theory, put Stone or even Kerbyson into the lineup before going back to Gooch, who works hard and puts up solid weight-room numbers but hasn’t proven himself to be an All-SEC player at this point.

UT senior guard/center Darin Gooch

The top two positions seem fairly set, though — at least for now, they do.

Bullard is occasionally a very good player — just ask former Vols and current Denver Broncos defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who always raved over Bullard’s ability — but the former Midstate high-school star is also a bit inconsistent at times, and that’ll need to improve this season. It’s completely fair to expect that, though, considering Bullard hadn’t played center in a game since childhood when he got put in the fire last season at SEC champion, archrival Alabama.

So, yes, Bullard should be fine. If for some reason he’s not, though, coaches continue to say good things about the progression of Crowder, a lifelong UT fan who chose the Vols over Florida and others out of Bristol’s Tennessee High School. Bullard could stand to add a bit more size, but he’s already plenty big enough to play center in the SEC and held his own against the Vols’ No. 1s and No. 2s this spring.

Between the proven commodity at the top of the depth chart and the talent (and versatility) behind Bullard, center — a crucial position in any offense — should be in better shape than it’s been for UT in years.

If we chose to be picky — and we do that from time to time — perhaps the biggest knock on UT’s centers is that there’s not a proven star anywhere on the depth chart. But that doesn’t mean a star can’t emerge. And even more realistically, it doesn’t mean the Vols can’t count on getting consistently solid play from Bullard and the backups.

UT’s in pretty good shape at the center position.

It’s been a while since I’ve typed that sentence.

It’s probably been a while since most of you have read that sentence, too.

Contact Wes Rucker at wesrucker247@gmail.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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