KNOXVILLE -- As Tennessee's offensive line was struggling mightily midway through last season, the Volunteers had a recent example to which they could look for a sign of hope.
With the 2014 season in which Tennessee allowed 43 sacks now in the past, the returning linemen still have their predecessors in mind as they work toward the start of spring practice later this month and build for the 2015 season.
When Tennessee faced a similar restart for the 2010 season -- the Vols entered that season with just three returning starts on its offensive line and started a trio of true freshmen most of the year -- it allowed 41 sacks in 13 games, the fifth-worst total in the country.
The next season, though, the Vols allowed just 18 with a group that included four future NFL players.
"We're hoping for that," rising senior tackle Kyler Kerbyson said Wednesday night before Tennessee's "VFL (Vol for Life) Career Development Night."
"We're a lot more confident this year than we were last year, just having a whole year underneath our belt, all of us coming back," he added.
"Guys are ready to step up."
The performance of the line remains the key to an offense that appears to have the right pieces in place at the skill spots to build off the success it had to end 2014. With Josh Dobbs playing quarterback the last six games of the season, Tennessee averaged 34 points. The Vols went two SEC games without a touchdown prior to Dobbs' insertion.
His mobility took some of the pressure off the inexperienced offensive line, which had to replace all five starters from 2013 and relied on freshmen and players playing out of position or hurt.
The hope for the players and the coaching staff was that those struggles would help for the future, which now has arrived.
"We've always got to get better," guard Marcus Jackson said. "Pass protecting, run blocking -- it's a never-ending cycle for us. There's always improvement for us. ... It's very technical position, so there's always things to improve."
Both Jackson and Kerbyson gave positive reviews to new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, a longtime offensive line coach who was hired last month to replace Mike Bajakian.
"He's a really cool guy," Kerbyson said. "When I heard him coming in and I knew he was a little bit older than most of our coaches, I thought stickler, a hard-nosed kind of guy, but he's really cool with us. He likes to joke around but be serious at the same time, and he's not trying to change so much of our stuff, which is really great.
"(His background) puts an extra eye on us," he added. "Coaching, you have to be able to take it, and if you have two guys coaching you instead of just one with Coach Mo, then it's all the better. With his offensive line background, he realizes certain plays are going to work better than others with guys that he has, which is great."
Jackson described DeBord as both intelligent and approachable.
"He understands what he's doing," he said, "and he knows how to communicate it very well."
Kerbyson said he's focusing primarily on settling in at left tackle right now. He started all 13 games but played three positions in 2014 and joked that he was working at right guard, where he played for maybe one series against Vanderbilt, this time a year ago.
Jackson and rising sophomore Jashon Robertson appear to be locked in at the starting guard spots, and there's a potential competition at center between incumbent Mack Crowder and Coleman Thomas, who played the position in high school before starting five games at tackle last season.
The tackle spots, though, are where Tennessee struggled the most last season, and it's where the Vols will be hoping to find answers this season. Junior college transfer Dontavius Blair had an encouraging redshirt season, according to some coaches, and five-star freshman Drew Richmond is slated to arrive for the summer.
"The bowl game was a great help," Jackson said. "It helped us get those 15 extra practices we needed as a team, and right now everybody's rolling into spring. We've got the newcomers, and everybody's doing good."
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