published Thursday, July 24th, 2014

Tennessee Vols have 'brand' new line

STARTING STARTS

Tennessee's offensive line enters the 2014 season with just six career combined starts, which is by far the least in the nation. While the Vols are replacing their entire starting unit from 2013, most of the SEC is welcoming back multiple starters. Here's what the rest of the league returns up front, according to each program's preseason media guide.

Team Returning career starts

Alabama 37

Arkansas 47

Auburn 112

Florida 55

Georgia 57

Kentucky 73

LSU 75

Mississippi State 76

Missouri 72

Ole Miss 42

South Carolina 113

Tennessee 6

Texas A&M 89

Vanderbilt 83

KNOXVILLE — It's the question University of Tennessee center Mack Crowder probably got the most at SEC media days last week.

It's the same one he's been answering for months.

In case you hadn't heard, the Volunteers, who open preseason football practice a week from Friday, have to replace their entire offensive line heading into the start of this season.

A different lineup will mean a change in style, but how exactly might the 2014 edition of Tennessee's offensive line be from the 2013 group?

Crowder and the rest of the new faces have been thinking about how they want to answer that question for a while.

"It's hard to compare, you know," he said last week. "It's two completely different offensive lines, so I probably won't sit here and compare them, but I guess I can talk about our brand a little bit and that we've kind of come together as an offensive line and established some goals for ourselves.

"We want to be mentally and physically tough and want to wear guys down by blocking until the whistle blows. That's what we're going for."

It's what Tennessee's new line -- led by fourth-year players Crowder and guards Kyler Kerbyson and Marcus Jackson -- hoped to begin establishing during spring practice earlier this year.

"It really started last year whenever we realized that we were gonna be the new five guys," Crowder said. "That's something we're going to continue to work on."

Two of the five departed starters were selected in May's NFL draft, and the other three signed free-agent deals.

It's likely two newcomers will start at tackle. Freshman Coleman Thomas appears to have the starting right tackle position locked down after the 6-foot-6, 311-pounder impressed following his January arrival.

At left tackle, Dontavius Blair is the favorite to win that job, though he ended spring behind Jacob Gilliam, a long-time walk-on who was granted a scholarship by second-year coach Butch Jones this summer. While Gilliam's consistency likely helped him earn his first-team spot, Tennessee's coaches may have been using it to motivate the 6-foot-8, 313-pound Blair.

The junior-college transfer was a four-star recruit who was chased by a handful of big-name programs, and he should benefit from a few more months of conditioning this summer.

Sophomore Dylan Wiesman, who can play guard or center, is solid sixth man, but the Vols have significant depth questions beyond him, particularly at tackle. Fifth-year senior Marques Pair has played very sparingly during his career, and redshirt freshmen Austin Sanders and Brett Kendrick will need to have good performances this August.

On what Jones calls a "team of unknowns," the offensive line is one of the main concerns.

"It's a great challenge," he said. "We're the only team in the country who not only has to replace their entire offensive line, but the defensive line as well. We all know it's a line of scrimmage league. The games are won up front, but that's what makes college football exciting, is about a third of each roster turns over with graduation.

"It lends itself to new opportunities for everyone, and all five of those individuals have to come together, and it's new opportunities for them."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

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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