Stone may start

Stone may start

Tennessee's snap exchange may feature rookies on both ends Saturday night at Memphis.

Head coach Derek Dooley previously announced that Tyler Bray will start at quarterback. Now he's saying that James Stone, another true freshman, may open at center.

Dooley said it will be a "game-time" decision as to whether the starting center will be Stone or sophomore Darin Gooch, who opened Games 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 after succeeding Cody Pope, who started the first two games before suffering a shoulder injury.

Dooley says he'll watch Stone closely during Saturday's pre-game ceremonies before determining whether to start him vs. the Tigers.

"If I see three fumbled snaps in warmups, I might say, ‘Boys, we're going to wait one more week,'" the head man said. "But he's going to be a really good center, and I don't want to wait until March."

Tennessee began grooming Stone to play center in preseason. When first-team guard JerQuari Schofield was injured, however, Stone wound up starting at left guard in Games 4, 5 and 6. Now that Schofield is back at guard, Stone is back at center. His development at the position has been slowed, though, by the fact he's a southpaw.

"He's a left-handed guy," Dooley noted. "That doesn't sound like a big deal but everything's the opposite when your hand's under the center. I'm not worried about his ability to block and get on the right guy and do a great job. It's just the execution of the snap. It's the fifth-grade part of it, not the college part of it."

Changing from one right-handed center to another requires an adjustment by a quarterback. Changing from a right-handed center to a lefty is a much bigger adjustment.

"The ball doesn't get twisted the way it normally would," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said, "so the quarterbacks are having to change their mechanics a little bit."

Dooley echoed that thought.

"It's hard, because you've got a right-hander (Gooch) and a left-hander (Stone)," the head man said. "You get in the habit of catching the snap one way. I wish he was right-handed - it would have been a lot easier - but he's not."

Asked how teams compensate for a left-handed center, Chaney quipped, "We went back and watched some Bears' tape from 1937."

Turning serious, the coordinator added: "Actually, none of us has ever been around a left-handed center. I haven't, and I don't know that Harry (line coach Hiestand) has or Coach Dooley."

Fortunately for the Vols, something called a "pop-up snap" has been working well for Stone in practice.

"People have been doing this for years on a pop-up snap, so we thought 'What the heck? Let's take a look at it,'" Chaney said. "James feels more comfortable doing it, and the quarterbacks are getting more comfortable with him doing it. Who really cares as long as the quarterback gets the ball?"

All things considered, the coordinator said Stone is "doing fine" at center, exhibiting all of the traits needed to become a quality player at that position.

"He's a bright, bright young man," Chaney said. "He's got stature, he's got suddenness, he's got a tremendous amount of upside on him. He's smart and he can get to the second level. I like his athleticism and his brain."

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