Tennessee preseason preview: Offensive line

Tennessee preseason preview: Offensive line

July 27th, 2016 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Coleman Thomas (55) plays center for Tennessee. The Vanderbilt Commodores visited the Tennessee Volunteers in SEC football action November 28, 2015.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

By the numbers

2,908: Rushing yards by Tennessee’s offense in 2015. It was the program’s highest single-season total since 3,021 in 1989. That team went 11-1, won a share of the SEC title and finished ranked fifth with a backfield of Reggie Cobb, Chuck Webb and Tony Thompson.

71: Tennessee’s six offensive linemen with starting experience have 71 career starts among them. Jashon Robertson has a team-best 23 starts in just two seasons, followed by Coleman Thomas (18), Dylan Wiesman (15), Chance Hall (7), Brett Kendrick (7) and Jack Jones (1).

2: The Vols return only a pair of starts at left tackle, however. Kendrick made both in 2014 against Arkansas State and Alabama. Kyler Kerbyson started all 13 games there in 2015.

24: Sacks allowed by the Vols in 2015, a far cry from the 43 surrendered in 2014.

8: Tennessee has eight scholarship freshman or sophomore offensive linemen on its roster, so the future of the position is in far better shape than it was when the current coaching staff came in.

STAR POWER

Tennessee's offensive line may lack national stars or household names in NFL circles, but the Volunteers have a solid group of experienced veterans who have played a lot of football.

Coleman Thomas, named to the Rimington Trophy's preseason watch list, thrived as the starting center last season and has plenty of room to grow. Dylan Wiesman was a steadying force at guard in 2015 and was an All-SEC second-team pick. Fellow guard Jashon Robertson was named to the preseason All-SEC third team.

Chance Hall is a budding star after unexpectedly taking over at right tackle midway through his freshman season and earning All-SEC freshman team honors.

Those four players enter the preseason locked into starting positions.

PROMISING PROSPECTS

The coaching staff felt last year the offensive linemen in the 2015 class would form the core group of Tennessee's future, and so far they've been right.

The Vols certainly would not have beat Georgia last season without the contributions of Hall and Jack Jones after a couple of in-game injuries, and the two freshmen held their own against the waves of elite Alabama defensive linemen they faced two weeks later.

Fellow 2015 signees Drew Richmond and Venzell Boulware redshirted last season, but they took nearly every first-team rep at left tackle and left guard, respectively, during spring practice.

All four second-year players will either start or fill rotation spots in 2016.

If Hall is healthy, he'll start at right tackle, while Richmond will battle Brett Kendrick for the starting job at left tackle. With Wiesman and Robertson at guard, Boulware may find it tough to start, but he can put himself in position to be the first or second lineman off the bench. Jones has worked across the line this offseason and could become the unit's utility man.

FRESH FACES

The good news: Tennessee signed three offensive linemen in 2016.

The better news: There's no pressure on any of them to contribute as freshmen.

Ryan Johnson, Marcus Tatum and Nathan Niehaus all appear headed to redshirt seasons, a luxury the Vols didn't have a couple of seasons ago when depth up front was nonexistent.

The Vols beat out Florida to land Tatum, who's listed at 265 pounds and will need to live in the weight room this fall. Niehaus, a one-time West Virginia commitment, currently is listed at 295 pounds — 40 pounds more than his listed weight on signing day. Both have 6-foot-6 frames capable of adding bulk and strength.

Johnson is the most ready to play, and though he could find himself in a reserve role given Tennessee's lack of true tackles, the Vols would prefer to redshirt him as well.

STRONG SUIT

Long gone are the days of 2014, when Tennessee was starting two freshmen and a former walk-on offensive tackle with a torn ACL on its offensive line.

The Vols have competition and depth. Starting spots are earned instead of given to the only available bodies. The Vols now can overcome an injury or two, as they were able to do last season.

Tennessee has a nice blend of experienced veterans and talented younger players.

Robertson, Thomas, Wiesman and Kendrick have been through the rigors of an SEC schedule, while Hall, Jones, Richmond, Boulware and Charles Mosley have bright futures, though the future is already here for a couple of them.

With the experience comes chemistry, which is necessary for an offensive line to be successful.

Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord emphasized physical play for the offensive line last season and it paid off, and the Vols hope to maintain that style this season.

QUESTION MARKS

The primary preseason competition on Tennessee's offense will be at left tackle, where the Vols hope to find a player as reliable and steady as Kyler Kerbyson was last season.

The battle will feature Kendrick's experience against Richmond's upside, and though Richmond may begin training camp as the favorite, don't count out Kendrick, a fourth-year junior.

Coaches continually praised Kendrick for his improvement and consistency in spring practice, when he played right tackle in Hall's absence. After starting twice at left tackle in 2014, he started the first five games at right tackle last season. Kendrick will have value regardless of whether he wins the starting job, given his ability to play multiple positions.

Richmond has had his opportunity circled since the middle of last season, but the former five-star recruit's biggest challenge is becoming a more physical and more consistent run blocker.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.


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