Vols sorting through O-line options after Chance Hall's injury

Drew Richmond is Tennessee's starter at left tackle and keeps getting better, according to offensive coordinator Mike DeBord.
photo Brett Kendrick (63) is the Vols' right tackle, and the team needs him to stay healthy.

KNOXVILLE - Just when the competition for Tennessee's starting offensive tackle spots was coming into focus, an injury made the picture crystal clear.

With the time remaining between now and the season opener against Appalachian State in 12 days, the Volunteers must sort out the murkier image beyond their two starting tackles.

Drew Richmond and Brett Kendrick are locked in at left and right tackle, respectively, with Chance Hall set to miss four to six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery this week, but Tennessee may have to get creative or bold with its offensive line if anything happens to one of those two.

"We'll work Coleman Thomas a little bit at tackle, which he's done in camp already in individual drills and individual pass protection and individual blocking and things like that," offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said Friday.

"He'll be a guy that we work there as the third tackle right now. Obviously we've got our freshmen that we're working out there. Those guys right now would be the four and five guys."

It's not been an easy preseason for Tennessee's tackles battling the talented waves of defensive ends the Vols soon will begin to throw at other teams, and the situation certainly didn't improve with the short-term loss of Hall, who had bounced back from missing spring practice and a frustrating start to training camp to push Kendrick at right tackle.

Tennessee's method of cross-training every offensive lineman capable of handling it mentally and physically affords flexibility and the luxury of being able to play certain players in multiple spots.

Though Thomas is clearly best suited to play center, he has started six games at right tackle the past two years and is capable of sliding back out there in a pinch.

Beyond him the Vols might turn to a freshman. The trio of Marcus Tatum, Nathan Niehaus and Ryan Johnson have worked at tackle all month, with Tatum separating himself and earning consistent praise from the coaching staff. Tennessee would prefer to redshirt all of them but now may not be able to do so.

"With our freshmen like that, we want to obviously get them stronger," DeBord said. "We want to continue to put on the weight, but we want to continue to bring them along, too, football-wise. It's a process with all of it."

Tatum, whom Tennessee beat out Florida to land, has impressed this month, and it's likely the Vols will expedite the process with him the next week to 10 days to have him ready to go in case he's needed.

"First of all, he's very athletic, he's got great length in his arms and I love the way he competes every day," DeBord said. "Like yesterday in practice he just said, 'I don't understand that.' He wants to learn and he wants to master things. I just love his attitude and I love his ability."

Though he's listed at 265 pounds, Tatum has added weight and strength and now weighs closer to 280.

"The more (weight) the better," DeBord said. "We're continuing to try and bulk him up and put it on him in the right way. He's eating 24 hours a day. We're just continuing to build him as he can do it."

A fourth-year junior with seven starts as a Vol, Kendrick has improved as much as any offensive lineman this season, while Richmond is a promising former five-star recruit coming off a redshirt season.

"I think he's improved a lot," DeBord said of Kendrick. "I think where he's really improved upon is his pass protection. He's really done a good job with his hands and working on getting separation from the defensive line and what we call locking it out. He's really done a good job. I thought he's really improved a lot from last season.

"Drew has really had a really good mindset in this whole training camp. All he wants to do is get better every practice. He asks questions all the time. He has continued to get better as a football player."