The Times Free Press is taking a daily positional look at the 2017 University of Tennessee football team leading up to the first practice Saturday. Today we look at the offensive line:
Every contributor from Tennessee's 2016 offensive line returns, except for graduated center and guard Dylan Wiesman. That means seven players with more than 100 combined starts will anchor a unit that will have few excuses for any miscues while the Volunteers adjust to a new quarterback. The returning depth and versatility of the group give first-year offensive line coach Walt Wells and Tennessee's staff a Rubik's Cube of starting possibilities along the offensive line. Jashon Robertson is the leader of the bunch. The Nashville native is a three-year starter at guard and also played center during spring practice while fellow senior Coleman Thomas recovered from an emergency appendectomy. Robertson was one of three Tennessee players to represent the Vols at SEC media days this month and clearly is respected by his teammates and coaches. Chance Hall, Drew Richmond and Brett Kendrick return with plenty of starting experience at tackle, while Jack Jones and Venzell Boulware are back with starting experience at guard. Marcus Tatum, who played in two games as a true freshman last season, returns as a sophomore. He and a group of four redshirt freshmen will provide additional depth.
An intriguing storyline within the position group will be the utilization of Trey Smith. The true freshman from Jackson, Tenn., enrolled in January and impressed the coaching staff with his size and maturity. Fresh off celebrating his 18th birthday in June, the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Smith will be hard to keep off the field this season. Smith was considered one of the top high school prospects in the nation and could make a run at a starting job that would otherwise belong to one of the veterans. K'Rojhn Calbert is a freshman from Warren County High School, while Riley Locklear is a true freshman from Huntington, W. Va. Both could be redshirt candidates.
Vols preview, SEC football series
- Tennessee's Kahlil McKenzie has 'newfound appreciation'
- Teammates see Vols as snake in the grass waiting to strike
- Baylor grad Colton Jumper highly regarded as Vols build linebacker depth
- Graduate transfer cornerback Shaq Wiggins still learning Vols way [photos]
- Larry Scott, Bob Shoop know they'll learn more about Vols later
- Wiedmer: Big Orange Nation now has practice to talk about
- Vols open preseason practice [video, photos]
- Tennessee quarterbacks willing to play together [video]
- Evan Berry leads Vols specialists into 2017
- Georgia not lacking for excitement entering Kirby Smart's second camp
- Vols position preview: Secondary mixes experience with youth
- Butch Jones excited about Vols' position competitions
- Vanderbilt's Ralph Webb aiming for all-time SEC status
- Position Preview: Darrin Kirkland Jr. heads big group of Vols linebackers
- Do-it-all Christian Kirk could shoulder the load for the Aggies
- Tennessee position preview: Receivers besides Jauan Jennings need to emerge
- Jake Bentley continuing his pioneering run through the SEC
- Tennessee position preview: Offensive line deep, versatile
- Brash Beisel expecting improved Missouri defense
- Tennessee position preview: John Kelly anchors Vols running backs
- Persistence has paid off for Mississippi State's Dez Harris
- Derrius Guice ready to take rushing reins at LSU
- Tennessee 'like a snake in the grass' entering 2017
- Kentucky quarterback eager to prove more doubters wrong
- Roquan Smith ready to build off Georgia's 2016 finish
- Florida expecting Martez Ivey to 'flourish' at left tackle
- Auburn's Tray Matthews making the most of second opportunity
- Allen continues run of quarterback stability for Arkansas
- Alabama's Calvin Ridley expected to benefit from passing-game emphasis
Depth, versatility and experience are strengths for the offensive line. Three seniors - Robertson, Thomas and Kendrick - provide the group with a more established veteran presence than it had last year. Coaches and players have cited the impending competition for playing time during preseason practice as a positive, saying it should bring out the best in those vying for starting positions.
If Thomas struggles with injury again this season, there is little experience behind him at center. Robertson played the position in the spring, but guard is his natural position and accurate snaps are a necessity for a team that plays from the shotgun as much as Tennessee. It's unlikely that Tennessee's quarterback will be as skilled at escaping pressure as the departed Joshua Dobbs was for the past four seasons. This group needs to improve its pass protection in 2017.
Contact David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org.