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Pair finally finding PT path

Don Mahoney would rather have Antonio Richardson cleared for full contact this spring — who wouldn’t? — but Tennessee’s first-year offensive line coach doesn’t plan to waste time worrying about it.

Junior offensive lineman Marques Pair works with Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian in Neyland-Thompson Sports Center.

Richardson, the massive wall of humanity affectionately known as “Tiny” by basically everyone but his family, is recovering from knee surgery and isn’t allowed to go through everything this spring. The junior left tackle is out there, in uniform, but UT’s coaches understandably see no reason to rush their future first-round NFL Draft pick back into the mix nearly six months before their Aug. 31 season opener against Austin Peay.

Besides, as much as Mahoney can’t wait to coach Richardson, he knows what he’s got there.

What the O-line coach doesn’t know is what’s behind Richardson and fellow NFL-in-waiting stalwarts such as senior right tackle Ja’Wuan James, senior right guard Zach Fulton and senior center James Stone.

“Sure, there’s progress being by Tiny, but there’s other guys,” Mahoney said. “And they’ve always got to have the mindset that they’re a starter.

That’s a new concept for Marques Pair — a 6-foot-5, fourth-year junior with a grand total of one game played in his UT career.

Not surprisingly, though, Pair has taken the opportunity and ran as quickly as 6-foot-5, 320-pound guy can run.

For the time being, he’s UT’s first-team left tackle in full-contact periods. And he’s loving every bit of it.

“Oh, yeah, I’m taking the very most of it,” Pair said after Saturday’s scrimmage in Neyland Stadium. “Like Coach (Mahoney) says, ‘Who’s gonna step up when somebody goes down?’ If Tiny goes down, I have to make sure I’m ready to go.

“I’d say this offseason, going into the spring, I’ve improved a whole lot. I’ve been working real hard, and I’ve been doing pretty good.”

Mahoney, like most coaches in their first year in a program, walked into his first meeting with his new players and promised all of them a blank slate. He gave them their first order: Trim it up. UT’s previous staff didn’t really care what offensive linemen weighed as long as their body-fat content was low enough. Head coach Butch Jones and his staff run an even-faster-paced offense than the Vols ran last season, though, so anything bigger than 325 pounds probably wasn’t going to work, even for a 6-5 or 6-6 guy.

Pair got the message, dropping from 344 to 329 and counting. He’d like to be closer to 320 by the time preseason camp starts — and knowing how preseason camp usually goes, he could probably be 325 and still meet the mark in a week or two.

“Here’s the thing: With the guys, when we started this offseason, we had guys that have had a long time off, and we had some guys who were carrying some weight that they didn’t need to carry,” Mahoney said. “And the first thing I told them was, ‘Show your sign of commitment with how much weight you’re losing by what’s being instructed by Coach Lawson.’ And he’s done that. He’s been all in. He’s had a heck of a semester to this point academically, his weight’s been lost.

“I told him, ‘We’re a new staff. You’re starting from Ground Zero. I don’t care what’s happened in the past. I can’t wait to coach Marques Pair. I don’t know what you’ve done. All I know is you’re here now, and I want to coach you and get the best out of you.’ And so far, I’m gonna go watch film, but I like the way he’s attacked things off the field, in the weight room and right now with us.

“And, you know, the guys we have right now, we’ve got to coach ‘em up, and we’ve got to coach ‘em hard. And I’m pleased with what I’ve seen, because of the effort he’s shown, the commitment he’s shown.”

Teammates have taken notice, too.

Senior defensive end Jacques Smith has faced Pair on plenty of occasions the past few seasons. Of course, Pair was usually a scout-team tackle or guard. Things are much different these days, Smith insisted.

“Pair’s grown a bunch as a player,” Smith said. “I mean, he’s gotten more athletic. He’s gotten bigger, stronger. I mean, he’s totally changed the whole dynamic of his game. He can definitely help us out this year. I think he’ll be our utility lineman.”

Richardson said Pair has “done a really good for his first time being out there in the fire,” and Worley said he doesn’t worry with Pair protecting his blind side.

“He’s a very athletic guy,” Worley said. “As you know, he hasn’t gotten that many reps in the past, but he brings a good, athletic skills set to the left tackle position, and he’s willing to work and do whatever he can to add value to that offensive front.”

Perhaps Pair is just now proving he can help the cause in games, but the Sumter, S.C., native has consistently shown he’s willing to help his program. He committed and signed with Lane Kiffin and has stayed through two head-coaching transitions and consistent position shifts.

And, as he so adamantly states, he has “never even for a second” thought about transferring from Tennessee.

“Naw, man, never,” Pair said. “This is Tennessee. This is the best place to be. There’s nowhere else. All the changes, all the stuff, everything, I’ve been stuck to Tennessee the whole time.

“I bleed orange and white. This is my life.”

And this is his chance.

Few freaks like Richardson populate the planet. When he’s healthy, he’s the Vols’ left tackle, and that won’t change until he declares for the draft.

Pair’s plan is simple, though. He just wants to help. Right now, that’s at left tackle. At some point it might be left guard, right guard or right tackle.

Just keep the ball out of his hands, and he’s good.

“I was mostly left guard last year,” he said. “I really don’t have a preference. I just play wherever I can, wherever they need me. I’ve worked inside, outside, right left — everywhere but center. That snap is ... it’s not my thing, you know?”

Pair said he’s pleased with his footwork and quickness — those were always his strengths, even before he dropped 15-plus pounds — but he hopes to to have a good spring and summer in the weight room and improve his strength. That would help him overcome his biggest self-described weakness, which has always been a lack of consistency in finishing blocks.

The main goal, obviously, is to find a way onto the field for Saturdays this fall. That’s always been the goal, but Pair said it finally seems within reach.

“It’s a process. It’s a long process,” Pair said. “You’ve got to take it day by day. Going from high school to college, especially at a place like this, it was a lot different, knowing you had people that were just as good as you or better that was in the same position as you. You’ve just got to keep working, and work hard.

“Just like any other person, every day I have to try to get better, try to improve, work on what I have to do to help the team. Each day I just come in ready to work.”

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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