KNOXVILLE — Behind the running back tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara and quarterback Josh Dobbs, Tennessee had one of the Southeastern Conference's top rushing offenses last season.
What do the Volunteers have in store for an encore in 2016?
"With our backfield, I mean ," said offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman, briefly pausing to consider the possibilities.
"Last year, it was something to hang our hat on, but that was last year," the senior continued after Tennessee's practice Saturday afternoon in Neyland Stadium. "Right now we're working to be as good as we can. We take pride in what we do as an O-line. With Josh, with Alvin, with Jalen — the sky's the limit. Our goal is to be No. 1 in the SEC."
In 2015 Tennessee finished a distant second in the SEC behind LSU and star running back Leonard Fournette, but the Vols' 223.7-yard average was the program's highest in a single season since 1994. That production came despite a topsy-turvy season on the offensive line, where the Vols often had to use different lineups from game to game and within some games.
Wiesman quietly was a steadying influence at both guard spots while different players rotated in around him, and he has continued that this spring as the Vols operate without two starters, Jashon Robertson and Chance Hall.
The absence of Coleman Thomas this week meant Wiesman slid over from guard to center, where he's flanked by three rising second-year players in Jack Jones and Venzell Boulware at guard and Drew Richmond at left tackle.
"Dylan's been invaluable," Vols coach Butch Jones said. "The thing with Dylan is he can play center, he can play guard. Coleman Thomas has been out a few practices, and we haven't missed a beat with Dylan at center. He's kind of been the model of consistency; he's kind of been the mainstay in the offensive line."
After a slow start, Tennessee's offense, which was also without tight end Ethan Wolf and receivers Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings, picked it up during the scrimmage portion of Saturday's practice.
Cornerback Cameron Sutton made a leaping interception on a deep ball from Dobbs in the first series, but Dobbs and walk-on Jayson Sparks came up with long touchdown runs later in the 11-on-11 work.
"I feel like it was a good, productive scrimmage," said backup quarterback Quinten Dormady, who took some first-team repetitions as the Vols manage Dobbs's spring workload. "I think we ran the ball really well. The O-line was doing a great job up front moving some people around. I think that overall it was very productive."
Very limited work for Hurd and Kamara meant John Kelly and some walk-ons got most of the carries, while quarterback Sheriron Jones had some nice runs as well.
"We started off fairly slow," Wiesman said. "As an offense I think we should come out and punch the defenses in the mouth and run the ball down. We didn't start off very well, but I think as we got going we started to play fairly well. At the end I thought we pretty much imposed our will, which is what we should do as an offense with the guys that we have.
"I think we did a pretty good job at the end."
It took a little while for Tennessee's passing game to get going.
Only when Josh Smith made two tough catches with two defenders draped all over him — the first was a one-handed snag along the sideline on a back-shoulder throw from Dobbs against Sutton — did the Vols start to move the ball through the air.
Preston Williams continued his spring renaissance with a leaping touchdown grab over Justin Martin.
Dobbs and Dormady later made accurate throws on the run after pressure forced them from the pocket.
"We can't just rely on Jalen and Alvin," Smith said. "Our passing game is very important, and that's what wins games, too. We've got to take the heat off of Jalen and Alvin, and I think that's what we're working towards and that's what we're heading towards."
Less than two seasons ago Tennessee was so thin on its offensive line it had to play a former walk-on with a torn ACL at tackle (Jacob Gilliam) because it had no other options.
Now the Vols have quality options and competitive depth.
Veterans Wiesman and tackle Brett Kendrick continue to play well, and some younger linemen — particularly Richmond, Boulware and Jones — are getting valuable work for 2016 and beyond.
"Those reps are valuable for them," Wiesman said. "If something happens in a game, someone gets hurt, they could be thrown in the fire. They have to be ready to go at any minute."
Tennessee's goal is too lofty for them not to be.
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