Tennessee Vols' 'completely different' O-line working toward different results

Tennessee Vols' 'completely different' O-line working toward different results

May 3rd, 2015 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs (second from left) calls the play to linemen Mack Crowder (57), Kyler Kerbyson (77) and Brett Kendrick (63) in this Oct 15, 2014, file photo.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- The questions and concerns still exist.

Like just about everything else with Tennessee's offensive line, though, they're different this offseason.

The position unit that was the weakest link for the Volunteers during a 7-6 season in 2014 exits spring practice and heads into the summer with more experience, more physical improvements and added competition for starting spots.

The Vols' hope is that all those factors lead to much-improved results when the 2015 season arrives.

"Spring to spring, it's a completely different offensive line," fifth-year senior left tackle Kyler Kerbyson said last month. "We're literally in different positions, and our mentality's totally different, too. The way we come out and practice every day is a huge thing for us. We always have a great mentality to come out and work and be the guys to lean on.

"We want to be the guys that everybody can lean on us and not be the reason we're not doing well or the reason why we can't convert or can't score. We don't want to be that anymore. We want to be the reason why we are scoring and why we are converting."

At this point of the offseason a year ago, Tennessee had just two offensive linemen with starting experience and just six combined career starts. That inexperience showed, particularly early in the season in losses at Oklahoma and against Florida. The 43 sacks the Vols allowed were the sixth-most in college football last season.

Going into this season, though, the Vols have seven linemen with starting experience and return 64 career starts.

The added competition is what is most exciting for offensive line coach Don Mahoney, who believes the increased options up front are good problems to have.

"The urgency level by the players has been there, but the results need to be faster," he said. "And they see that in their play that if it's not happening faster by them, then they're going to get passed up. It's one of those things where it's (not) we need you to get better in the next couple of practices. We need you to get better now.

"That's the good part about it. That's requiring them to continue to push more, to continue to watch more film, to continue to work at a pace and understand that we want to strive for greatness in all that we do as a team and as a position.

"It's as healthy as it can be, but we still need more. We need to continue to improve the depth. We're still not where we need to be from a depth standpoint, but it's definitely improved."

The presumed starting five at this point, from left to right, probably are Kerbyson, Marcus Jackson, Mack Crowder, Jashon Robertson and Brett Kendrick.

Those spots aren't etched in stone, though, for a line that prefers continuity and the same five working together over time.

Coleman Thomas figures to push Crowder at center. Dontavius Blair, probably the most physically talented offensive lineman on Tennessee's roster, and Drew Richmond, a five-star recruit who will arrive this summer, could push for playing time at starting spots at tackle. Austin Sanders performed well during spring practice in Jackson's absence.

Freshmen Jack Jones and Chance Hall got extensive second-team work in spring. Richmond and incoming freshmen Venzell Boulware and Zach Stewart will join the mix in the summer.

"Competition makes you better in every aspect," Kerbyson said. "Having the depth helps guys get breaks, too. Getting some reps, helping your body -- that'll help during the season when we go on a long-games stretch with no byes. As much as depth as we can get, we want 15 guys in that room with us to make us a good O-line."

The Vols should take some confidence from how they closed last season. In the final six games with Josh Dobbs at quarterback, Tennessee allowed 13 sacks -- six against Missouri and its defensive end duo of Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the 23rd and 58th overall picks in the NFL draft -- and averaged 208.5 yards per game.

"I think we've gotten a lot better," Crowder said. "It's just a whole different world whenever you finally get some playing experience under your belt. Things start slowing down a little bit for you, and you can start focusing on technique and assignments and things like that a little bit better. It's not all about just really surviving.

"Now we're starting to be a little bit more physical and really just coming together and starting to be a pretty good O-line. As an O-line, you really have to work together and know what each other does on every play. Forming that bond, it takes a while. It really does, but now we're starting to really get it."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.