KNOXVILLE — It's been the elephant in the room for Tennessee's football program for more than a year.
Now the elephant is knocking on the door.
After a few seasons of continuity and minimal changes on the offensive line, the Volunteers are doing a complete overhaul up front heading into 2014.
All five starters from a year ago -- including four participants in last week's NFL scouting combine -- are gone, and Tennessee returns just six combined career starts after entering the 2013 season with 123 career combined starts.
Tennessee does have three linemen who have been in the program awaiting their turn since 2011 and three more second-year players. Three newcomers arrived last month, and a couple of them likely could slide into starting spots.
It's a vastly different task for offensive line coach Don Mahoney, whose challenge to a veteran group last season was that it hadn't played its best.
"Knowing some of the guys right now that are going to step into the role of what's leaving," he said last November, "I think there will be that chip on the shoulder to prove themselves that, 'Hey, we're worthy of being able to do this.'
"They're gonna want to prove it."
TENNESSEE SPRING PREVIEW
With Tennessee less than a week from starting spring practice, Times Free Press staff writer Patrick Brown takes a position-by-position look at the Vols heading into Butch Jones' second spring as the Vols' coach.
Saturday: Running backs
Sunday: Receivers and tight ends
Today: Offensive line
Tuesday: Defensive line/linebackers
Thursday: Five questions
Go to timesfreepress.com for all previous previews.
Who's back: Guard Marcus Jackson (five career starts), center Mack Crowder (one), guard/tackle Kyler Kerbyson (played in all 12 games in 2013), guard Dylan Wiesman (played in 10 games in 2013), tackle Marques Pair (six appearances in three seasons), tackle Austin Sanders (redshirted last season) and tackle Brett Kendrick (redshirted last season).
Who's gone: Everybody. Tennessee is replacing its entire starting offensive line, a group that combined to start 177 games in their careers, from 2013. Right tackle Ja'Wuan James (49 career starts), right guard Zach Fulton (40), center James Stone (39) and left guard Alex Bullard (25) were seniors, and left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson (24) entered the NFL draft following his junior season.
Who's new: Junior college tackle Dontavius Blair, along two high school offensive lineman in Coleman Thomas and Ray Raulerson, enrolled in January.
Coming soon: The Vols signed a pair of two-way linemen in Charles Mosley and Jashon Robertson who could play along the interior line at some point, but both players are likely to start their careers on defense.
IN THE MIX
While Tennessee does have to replace its entire offensive line from last season, the Vols seem to be in good shape along the interior of the line. This will be Crowder's fourth spring practice, and the Bristol product pushed Stone heading into last season before settling into a role as Tennessee's de facto sixth man. Jackson started five games as a true freshman in 2011 and was part of the seven-man rotation in 2012 before voluntarily redshirting last season. Wiesman, a one-time Cincinnati commitment who followed head coach Butch Jones and offensive line coach Don Mahoney to Tennessee, impressed last season with his toughness and disposition as a freshman. Kerbyson is versatile enough to play tackle or guard, but he's best suited at guard and may become Tennessee's utility man. Sanders, from Bradley Central, was further along than Kendrick last season, and both will be needed for depth.
ONE TO WATCH
Though the center and guard spots seem to be set, the question marks for Tennessee are at the tackle spots, and newcomers Blair and Thomas will get chances this spring to fill the left and right tackle spots, respectively. The 6-foot-6 Thomas, who's already up to 311 pounds, was classified as a center coming out of Fort Chiswell High School in Southwest Virginia, but his combination of versatility, playing demeanor, toughness and maturity made him an early target for Tennessee, and it's already helped him this offseason. Blair was a consensus four-star prospect who had his choice of big-time programs out of junior college, but there's always an adjustment for JuCo players, particularly linemen. Conditioning and playing low -- two areas in which he could slack and get away with it in junior college -- will be part of the transition this spring for Blair.
Could change up front be a good thing for the Vols? Having to replace an entire starting offensive line, particularly in the rugged SEC is never an ideal situation, and Tennessee is losing three or four players that could enjoy lengthy NFL careers. Still, a few of the players filling in those vacant spots have been in the program and waited their turn to start, and they will be eager and motivated to prove they're just as good, if not better, than their predecessors. With potentially three players the current staff recruited and signed in the starting unit, this year's group may be a better fit to what Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian want to do, too. Mahoney really liked the disposition of Crowder and Wiesman, and Thomas appears to be of a similar mold. Either way, though, replacing what Tennessee lost is a very tall order.
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 ...