KNOXVILLE — One player has been around since Tennessee's last bowl practices.
Another signed with the Volunteers three years ago after playing just 10 miles from campus down Interstate 40.
A third volunteered to take a redshirt year after playing his first two seasons with the Vols.
For the better part of three years, Tennessee center Mack Crowder and guards Kyler Kerbyson and Marcus Jackson have followed the same players through drills in practice or watched them take nearly all of the snaps in game.
With the Vols having to replace their entire front five heading into 2014, the trio's time is now.
"It's no looking back," Crowder said earlier this spring. "I'm finally where I want to be. Now it's time to step up and take leadership and get in there and lead the guys and show everybody that I'm ready to play. Marcus and Kyler are the same way. We're ready to take this thing on full force.
"It was very motivating," he said of having to wait his turn. "For three, four years now, we had to come to practice every single day and really know the only way we were probably gonna get in is if something happened to one of the older guys. Now, just knowing that our hard work finally paid off and it's our shot, it's very motivating to come in every day and attack it."
With tackles Ja'Wuan James and Antonio Richardson, guards Zach Fulton and Alex Bullard and center James Stone all now focused on preparing for May's NFL draft, Tennessee faces the daunting task of breaking in a new offensive line in the unforgiving gauntlet of the SEC.
Freshman Coleman Thomas has taken all the first-team reps at right tackle this spring, and walk-on Jacob Gilliam and junior college transfer Dontavius Blair are vying for the left tackle spot. Along the interior of the line, though, the Vols are plugging in players that have been around a while.
Crowder, Kerbyson and Jackson were all part of Tennessee's 2011 signing class. As an early enrollee, Crowder, the 6-foot-2, 280-pounder from Bristol, went through a few of the Vols' practices for the 2010 Music City Bowl.
Jackson arrived from Vero Beach in Florida that January and went through spring practice before starting five games as a true freshman and playing in every game in 2012, and Kerbyson arrived that summer after starring at Knoxville's Catholic High School.
Both Crowder and Kerbyson, whom offensive line coach Don Mahoney called "a pleasant surprise" this spring after Tuesday's practice, played in certain packages last season while Jackson redshirted to give him two years of remaining eligibility.
"Those two guys learned a lot from watching those guys last year and even the year before," Mahoney said, "so I think from a knowledge standpoint, as hard as it was to not play, I think they learned a lot mentally.
"They're really sharp players. If they have a missed assignment, something really weird happened on the play, or I did a poor job of teaching, because they're really sharp guys mentally. I think they've paid the price with that part.
"Now they're just hungry to prove what they can do. They're winning on both ends, from cutting 'em loose on the field plus mentally what they've gained watching those guys."
Yet despite their tenures, the three linemen have combined to appear in 53 career games with six career starts.
"I've been waiting three years now to get on the field, and it was just a little taste last year with the jumbo package and field goal and stuff like that," said Kerbyson, who's working at right guard this spring. "It just makes me excited. Playing against all those SEC teams last year makes me want to get out there and play a whole game against 'em."
There have been some bumps this spring. After solid performances in the first two scrimmages, Tennessee's offensive line looked overwhelmed at times last Saturday by a defensive front seven also replacing heavy graduation losses. It was poor enough that Crowder loudly and angrily lit into his line mates on the sideline after one especially poor sequence.
It was evidence of the fourth-year junior realizing his opportunity is here finally, and it's up to him and his teammates to ensure there's little drop-off from the old guard to the new cast.
"That's what we've been looking for for three years now," Kerbyson said. "We thought we were just as good as those guys. If you don't have that mindset, then you can't really go out there and perform like you want to. We come in and work hard and just try to be as good as we can be.
"We don't want to lose a game and regret and say, 'You know what, we didn't work hard enough. We didn't condition ourselves enough. We didn't study the playbook enough.' That's what we're trying to prevent, and we just go in and work every day."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...