KNOXVILLE - The Times Free Press is taking a daily positional look at the 2019 Tennessee football team, leading up to the first day of preseason camp on Aug. 2. So far we've looked at the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers/tight ends. Today we take a look at the offensive line:
Four starters return from the much-maligned group. Head coach Jeremy Pruitt and strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald put an emphasis on developing the size of the offensive line, which had players as little as 260 pounds trying to block 300-pound defensive linemen. There were unfortunate circumstances: The Volunteers lost starting center Brandon Kennedy in the season opener against West Virginia and lost Trey Smith to blood clots midway through the season, which cost the team two of its most talented linemen. The results with the returning players have been impressive: Jahmir Johnson, Nathan Niehaus and Marcus Tatum look noticeably bigger, while Ryan Johnson should show improvement. K'Rojhn Calbert and Jerome Carvin should be in the mix for playing time and potential starting spots. The apparent groupwide growth is needed: The Vols were last in the Southeastern Conference in 2018 in rushing yards and rushing yards per attempt and 13th in scoring offense while also allowing their quarterbacks to be sacked 23 times and hit countless others.
If both Kennedy and Smith - who has not yet been medically cleared - are able to return, the Vols have two quality options that weren't available for most of last season. That alone should breed some optimism.
Tennessee already had one of the best offensive line recruiting classes in the country after the December additions of Chris Akporoghene, Melvin McBride and Wanya Morris. That only grew six weeks later with the signings of Jackson Lampley and Darnell Wright, who was the top uncommitted player in the country at the time of his decision. They've since lost McBride, who was forced medically to retire, but Morris and Wright could end up in the rotation from the beginning of the season. Plus with the infusion of size - the four incoming linemen's average weight is nearly 310 pounds - the hope is that the players will be better suited for the battles that lie ahead, especially once they gain some experience.
If these linemen are fully healthy - and that will be a big if - there's a lot of potential and reason to believe the group can be good. Smith has shown his ability to perform at a high level, and the line recruits are special even with the loss of McBride. Some returning players have put on as much as 60-70 pounds of muscle this offseason to be able to better survive the rigors of league play, which should help, as should just having better players in general for the sake of competition.
Let's be honest: The Tennessee offensive line was, for the most part, horrible last year. Just an improvement from horrible is bad, which isn't going to be good enough to compete on a week-in, week-out basis in the SEC. Plus with the expectation that at least one of the true freshmen is going to play, growing pains are to be expected. One should expect the Vols to be better up front with all of the quality additions and the potential return of Smith, but how much better will they be?