Next man up

Alex Bullard

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Offensive lineman Zach Fulton has started 22 consecutive games at right guard dating back to the Kentucky game of his freshman season in 2010.

Unfortunately, that streak will likely come to a close Saturday afternoon in Columbia, S.C., after an ankle injury against Alabama forced Fulton out of the game and now has him listed as doubtful heading into Williams-Brice Stadium.

However, Alex Bullard, who will likely play in place of Fulton, has seen action in every game in 2012, including time at tight end in the jumbo package, which will benefit Tennessee this week.

"Of course he has played every game — he and Marcus (Jackson)," head coach Derek Dooley said. "I have said it all year — we have kind of felt that we had seven starters. You never want one of your five to go down, but we have a lot of confidence in him and Marcus to play that right guard spot."

Offensive line is one spot where Tennessee has enjoyed a wealth of talent in 2012. The Vol offense line, under the leadership of Sam Pittman, currently leads the NCAA in sacks allowed with three.

"That is important to have depth because you are always going to have injuries," Dooley said Tuesday. "We are there at certain positions, but we aren't even close at others."

Offensive line coach Sam Pittman and the Tennessee staff have done their best to get multiple reserves ready to plug holes up front.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
Bullard and the entire offensive line have adopted a next-man-up attitude that has enabled them to be one of the most improved units on the team.

"I thought going in there I did good," Bullard said of his play against No. 1 Alabama. "I picked up the slack — next man in. I think I did well. Alabama is a good team. I wasn't perfect by any means, but we always have to be ready."

Both Bullard and Jackson will be battling it out this week for the first-team reps at No. 17 South Carolina. And healthy competition has been a key to the Vols success.

"We just always practice as hard as we can," Bullard said. "We are ready. We both still play, I play at tight end and Marcus gets in there at left guard. We have been playing, but we just have to step it up this week because we are going to play a little bit more in different roles."

When Bullard isn't spending time at the guard position, he is working on his skills at tight end, where he is working every day to be an integral part of the Vol offense.

"I am right guard right now," Bullard said. "I will still play a little bit of tight end, but my primary focus right now is on right guard. Anything to help us win. I enjoy doing tight end, going down and blocking a defensive end or a SAM linebacker. It is fun.

"The technique is a little different at tight end. It is a different kind of player that you are blocking — more athletic players. The technique is different. I still have a long way to go, but I am getting used to it."

And with all the recent success in the trenches, Bullard says the meeting room energy is at an all-time high.

"We are far away from being perfect, but you can definitely see the improvement," he said. "We are running the ball better and we still lead the country in giving up sacks. We just have to keep plugging away and working to get better."

Watch as Derek Dooley, Bullard and select players address the media following Tuesday's practice:

Derek Dooley

Alex Bullard

Justin Hunter

Curt Maggitt

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