UT's O-line ready for rematch with Sooners

UT's O-line ready for rematch with Sooners

September 11th, 2015 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee coach Butch Jones speaks to the offense during this past Saturday's season opener against Bowling Green at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. The Volunteers' offensive line expects a tougher test Saturday when 23rd-ranked Tennessee host No. 19 Oklahoma at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — It's been nearly a year since that September night in Norman, Okla.

It was a forgettable one for the Tennessee football team and its fans, but the memories of the 34-10 loss remain fresh for the Volunteers' offensive linemen.

They were overwhelmed by a fast and aggressive Oklahoma front seven who ran through, around and past a wildly inexperienced offensive line on the way into Tennessee's backfield.

Last season's struggles truly began with the Sooners.

This year's hopes likewise hinge on how Tennessee's line fares against Oklahoma's defense in its first true test of 2015.

"We're a whole year better, a whole year more experienced, a whole year being more glued together and being around each other," sophomore guard Jashon Robertson said this week.

"Of course we're comfortable and confident in each other, knowing that the guy beside me, I know he's going to come in and give everything he's got, no matter who it is. I'm going to have his back, and I know he's going to have mine, and we're going to protect our guys."

Robertson, Coleman Thomas and Kyler Kerbyson are the three holdovers who started in Norman last season and will start Saturday night's rematch as the 23rd-ranked Vols host the No. 19 Sooners.

One was in his first game at a new position. Two were freshmen, starting next to each other on the line's right side. One made his first road start, while the other made his first start anywhere.

Oklahoma proceeded to rack up five sacks, 11 tackles for loss and countless hits on quarterback Justin Worley.

"I actually remember getting to Norman, and as soon as I stepped off the plane I was nervous," Thomas recalled of his first start.

Thomas and Robertson are in new positions at center and left guard, while Kerbyson remains at left tackle, where he started for the first time against the Sooners.

"I felt very uncomfortable there for the first game," he said. "It was the first time I had ever been there, so it took some getting used to. I definitely think that game kind of opened my eyes up to the technique and my skill level and power that I need to play at that position."

Tennessee's line had no basis for confidence going into that game, and it turned out to be both a baptism by fire and a foreshadowing of what would come in the following weeks.

The Vols enter the rematch with confidence, though. In the seven games since Josh Dobbs took over at quarterback midway through last season, Tennessee has surpassed 200 rushing yards in four games, including a 399-yard performance against Bowling Green — the Vols' highest single-game rushing total since 1994 — in last week's season-opening win.

"It gives us a lot of confidence, and I think the more confidence you have, the better you play," Kerbyson said. "Now it's not overconfidence by any means, but we're happy with our performance, and there's definitely places where we can grow. We can grow in our style of play, is what we're talking about, and being able to finish blocks a lot more."

Running backs Alvin Kamara (144 yards on 15 carries) and Jalen Hurd (123 on 23) each had big games this past Saturday in Nashville as the Vols flirted with having three 100-yard rushers in the same game for the first time since 1991. Dobbs finished with 89 yards on 12 carries.

"I believe we have one of the most explosive and best backfields in the country between Dobbs, Jalen, Alvin and those guys," Robertson said. "They run hard and get tough yards. We know if we can finish and sustain blocks and stay on them that much longer, those guys, they can take it the distance any time they touch the ball."

Can the Vols replicate that kind of performance, though, against a good defense like Oklahoma's?

They'll see some of the same Sooners they couldn't block last season. Eric Striker, Charles Tapper, Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans are all back. Defensive tackles Matt Dimon and Charles Walker combined for 3.5 tackles for loss in Oklahoma's season-opening dismantling of Akron.

"They're a very physical defense with a physical front," Thomas said. "We've just got to go back and plug some holes on our film and keep chipping away."

Tennessee's offensive line already looks vastly improved from where it was at this point last season, but the unit will have a better idea of its progress against the Sooners.

One thing is for sure, though. The line's mindset is in a much better place.

"They're already a very confident group," Dobbs said. "They just continue to come together each week and continue to improve. It's great to see constant improvement out of that group. They continue to grow. They were in here (Sunday) watching the film as a unit, as a group, and they continue to progress every day.

"I'm definitely excited to see what they're going to do this week."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.