KNOXVILLE — The torch is about to be passed.
And it's going into some unfamiliar hands.
Tennessee's five starting offensive linemen enter Saturday night's season finale at Kentucky with 172 combined career starts between, and it's likely going to be the final collegiate for all of them.
Come Sunday, the Volunteers will begin the process of retooling and revamping up front, and how the line looks next year certainly will be one of the offseason's biggest storylines.
Yet Don Mahoney is more confident than you might think, and the departing players feel certain they are leaving their positions in capable hands.
"I think that knowing some of the guys right now that are going to step into the role of what's leaving, I think there will be that chip on the shoulder to prove themselves that, 'Hey, we're worthy of being able to do this,'" Mahoney, Tennessee's offensive line coach, said after practice Wednesday.
"I've been a part of it where I've experienced some guys having to step in for some guys that have been lost in the starting group, and I've used motivational ways of getting after them and that type of thing. I like the makeup of them in their mental makeup. They're gonna want to prove it."
Should junior left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson elect to enter the NFL instead of return for his senior season -- and all indications point to him leaving -- Tennessee will have five new starters for 2014.
Yet they're hardly new faces.
Marcus Jackson, whom the staff chose to redshirt this season, started five games at guard as a freshman in 2011 and played plenty last season. Redshirt sophomores Mack Crowder and Kyler Kerbyson have played in situational packages this season.
True freshman Dylan Wiesman committed to Mahoney and first-year Vols coach Butch Jones at Cincinnati last year and followed them to Tennessee, and the staff likes his toughness at guard.
"With our young guys, I feel like they're in pretty good position right now," right guard Zach Fulton said. "They've been working hard ever since Coach Jones and his staff got here, so we're leaving them in pretty good position, I think.
"They know that the majority of us are leaving or gone, and they've been working hard and busting their butts all season."
The Vols redshirted true freshmen Austin Sanders -- a Bradley Central graduate -- and Brett Kendrick, and there are four linemen committed in the 2014 class: junior-college tackle Dontavius Blair, Tampa Plant High School's Ray Raulerson, Fort Chiswell (Va.) High's Coleman Thomas and Peachtree Ridge (Ga.) High's Orlando Brown.
Blair, Raulerson and Thomas are expected to arrive on campus in January, and Blair, a four-star prospect who had offers from Florida State, Auburn, Georgia, Ohio State, Texas A&M and others, is expected to be an immediate starter.
Crowder figures to slide into James Stone's spot at center, and Wiesman and Jackson, a former four-star prospect, project to fill the holes at both guards. Kerbyson has worked at right tackle this season.
"I'm very confident in the guys in behind us," Stone said, "because I've seen them busting they butts these past few years. You see guys like that, and you can trust them to go in the game now if they needed to, so you feel very confident as a senior offensive linemen that the guys that are coming to take your spots and filling your shoes are going to be great players.
"I feel like we're leaving it in excellent hands."
Though Tennessee's offensive line has faced some criticism for how it's played this season, the Vols' veteran group is leaving the bar pretty high. Tennessee's 2,043 rushing yards this season equals the output of the 2009 team, and the Vols, averaging 185.7 yards per game, are about to post the program's second-highest yardage total on the ground since 1999.
Tennessee has done this with a paltry 12 runs of 20 or more yards this season and a passing game that might fail to crack the 2,000-yard mark for just the fourth season since 1982.
Mahoney, though, is more focused on wins. He called his current group "an extremely talented group that will be missed" but admitted he's relishing the challenge of breaking in an entirely new unit.
"[They] are really anxious like we are to get this program where it needs to be, and I think they're excited to, No. 1, play, but also their passion for Tennessee and their desire to get this to where we want it to be," he said.
"Sure, they may not be completely as skilled as maybe a Ja'Wuan is, or maybe Zach or what have you," he added, "but I think there will be other things that they'll make up for in the shortcomings. I'm anxious to go to work with them, and they are, too.
"They'll be ones that'll be getting at it next week. Whenever it should be a time off, they'll be getting at next week getting ready to go because they're not happy with where we're at."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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