James Stone uses two hands to try to hold on to role as UT's starting center

Monday, September 10, 2012 at 11:15pm

To accommodate his quarterback, James Stone abandoned his natural southpaw tendency.

Now, to settle into his own comfort zone and win his starting job back, he has settled on an ambidextrous approach to playing center for the University of Tennessee.

Two games into the 2012 season, the former Maplewood standout has flown under the radar. The junior hopes it stays that way after his — and the 23rd-ranked Vols’ — first real test of the season on Saturday against No. 18 Florida.

“This will be a good opportunity for him,” coach Derek Dooley said Monday. “I don’t think any of our guys really kept their composure last year against [Florida].”

Last year against the Gators that coveted anonymity that offensive linemen play with was stripped away from Stone.

Instead of putting his head down, opening up holes for the run game, protecting the quarterback and generally going unnoticed, the attention directly turned to Stone, who struggled with perhaps the most important aspect of his job — snapping.

A natural left-hander, Stone switched to snapping with his right hand before the start of the 2011 season to make it easier for quarterback Tyler Bray. The first two games there weren’t any noticeable issues but, against Florida, when Bray stepped further back into shotgun, Stone repeatedly misfired.

Most of his wayward snaps went low and none resulted in a turnover — though one skidded across the ground for a fumble that Bray recovered in time for a 13-yard loss. The delayed the timing and affected the offensive rhythm contributed to a 33-23 defeat.

“I was off. I really didn’t realize it until it was too late,” Stone said. “Then I was lingering on it for too long as well. It was something ... mentally I was out of whack.”

Focused more on snapping, the 6-foot-3, 310-pounder began to falter elsewhere and after six games he lost his starting job to Alex Bullard.

It looked like the Freshman All-American and former Tennessee AA Lineman of the Year would have to develop another niche at guard or tackle. But with depth concerns aplenty on the offensive line, he got a second chance this offseason.

Motivated to regain his job, Stone worked on consistency shooting the ball back to Bray — without any bouncing on the ground. He also started snapping with both hands. When Bray is directly under center, Stone snaps with his right hand. But when Bray is in the shotgun, Stone sticks with what he knows best — his left hand.

Back in his comfort zone, Stone believes his days of being uncomfortable are behind him. But by no means has he forgotten about last year’s rude awakening against Florida.

“I feel like it really let me know the value of reps and the value of never taking any reps for granted,” he said. “You got to go out there and do every rep you do full speed. I was in a new environment. I mishandled the ball. I learned from it. ... I always kept that as something very personal that I had to remember — always take care of the football.”