Vols start to find answers on offensive line

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt walks among his players as they warmup before a NCAA football game against UTC at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019 in Knoxville, Tenn.

KNOXVILLE - It's taken a few weeks, but it's possible that Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and offensive line coach Will Friend have found a combination on the line that they feel comfortable with.

The position group that was much-maligned in 2018 has shown quality levels of improvement as play shifts into Southeastern Conference action, beginning Saturday at ninth-ranked Florida (3-0, 1-0).

The Volunteers have rushed for a combined 439 yards in the past two games, a double-overtime loss to Brigham Young and last week's 45-0 victory over Football Championship Subdivision foe University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. And they did so with separate groups up front.

For most of the game against the Cougars, Jahmir Johnson played left tackle, Trey Smith was at left guard, Brandon Kennedy was the center, Ryan Johnson was at right guard and Marcus Tatum was at right tackle. They paved the way for 242 rushing yards - the second most of the Pruitt era - but Jahmir Johnson was banged up after that game.

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee offensive linemen Jahmir Johnson (58), Trey Smith (73), Brandon Kennedy (55), Ryan Johnson (70) and Marcus Tatum (68) warm up before facing BYU during a NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Knoxville, Tenn.

That led to true freshman Wanya Morris, who started the Georgia State game, being reinserted at left tackle against UTC. Smith and Kennedy remained constants at left guard and center, but true freshman Darnell Wright - who was recruited as a tackle - slid to the right guard position while sophomore K'Rojhn Calbert made his first career start at right tackle.

There have been so many combinations that it could have been considered difficult to develop the cohesiveness and continuity needed to really jell, but quarterback Jarrett Guarantano said that hasn't been the case.

"I knew it would be like this going into the season," he said Tuesday. "It's really not my call. I trust and believe in Coach Chaney and Coach Friend, and I think they're always going to put out the best five."

The past couple of weeks have shown promise, but the road gets considerably tougher this week as the Gators lead the country with 16 sacks, 10 of which came in the season-opening win against Miami.

Pruitt noted Monday that a key to this week is being effective rushing the ball, which the Vols have been able to do the past two weeks.

"If you can run the football and stay ahead of the sticks a little bit, they can't pin their ears back and go (full speed toward the quarterback)," Pruitt said. "We've got to be able to run the football. We've got to be creative probably with different things and protections. Whether we're chipping or leaving a back in or something like that. We've got to be efficient offensively. We've got to get the ball out of our hand and know where we're going with the ball and spread it around."

Kennedy has been the only constant on the line, which makes sense as he's the only senior. The faces around him have changed from week to week, but the 6-foot-3, 301-pounder said he has put the responsibility of getting everybody in the right place on himself. That role will be even more important this week against a solid Gators front seven.

"So far, I think things have been pretty smooth, but obviously we're improving every week," he said. "It's been key to take any mistakes from the last game and work on, build on for this game. We haven't been making any mistakes as far as communication, which is where we've improved the most."

The Vols have played three games with varying results, but a new part of the season begins Saturday in Gainesville. A lot of players have been able to gain experience in the first three games, but this week is a whole new challenge.

The leader of the fluid offensive line says his guys will be ready.

"I think this is a very exciting time of year," Kennedy said. "We're starting SEC play and every game we play in this league is a big game, so I'm excited."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.