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Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs (second from left) calls the play to linemen Mack Crowder (57), Kyler Kerbyson (77) and Brett Kendrick (63) in this 2014 file photo.

KNOXVILLE -- When Tennessee began spring football practice late last month, Brett Kendrick wasn't working with the first-team offensive line.

With the Volunteers one practice away from Saturday's Orange and White Game, that's not the case anymore.

Kendrick stepped into the vacancy at right tackle when Coleman Thomas was suspended following his arrest on a theft charge. Kendrick will leave spring penciled in as a starter there after Thomas, a five-game starter at right tackle last season, began working more at center upon his return last week after charges against him were dismissed.

"I think also they're trying to see where Coleman can play this year, but I think that is them saying they have confidence in me, which builds my confidence," Kendrick said after Tuesday's practice.

"Anything that can build my confidence, that's really helped, and I'm glad that they have confidence in me to stay out there. I've been focusing on a few things every practice to get better at. Just step by step, I've been trying to work my way and never digress and always just keep the momentum going."

After redshirting his first season at Tennessee, Kendrick was a backup tackle who started two 2014 games (Arkansas State and Alabama) as a fill-in for injured starters, and he entered his third year in the program in the mix to replace departed senior Jacob Gilliam, who started the latter half of last season at right tackle on a torn ACL.

From a standpoint of run-game production and sacks allowed, the Vols had two of their better games when the 6-foot-6, 316-pound Kendrick, a former Christian Academy of Knoxville standout, entered the starting five.

Fellow tackle Kyler Kerbyson said Kendrick now barely resembles the redshirt freshman who started those games.

"I've never seen anybody grow as much as Brett has this offseason," the senior said. "Last season, working with him when he was behind me at left (tackle) and got a few playing reps in games, his step up on the field is ridiculous. It really does astound me how much different he is, how good his set is now, how good his hands are, how good his footwork is.

"It really just shows that he works hard and he wants it."

Of course, Kendrick first needed an opportunity to show he was worthy of a first-team spot on an offensive line that's hoping for a bounce-back season after the majority of the 2014 season was a struggle.

Thomas's arrest provided that chance for Kendrick, and he's made the most of it, though he'll still have to do what it takes to maintain his spot through the summer and into preseason camp.

"He has (run with it)," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said last week. "This whole spring, regardless of what happened, Brett's approach has been really focused. Really both he and Austin Sanders are guys that they know that the time has gone by fast, and it's time to step up and play. Both guys are working extremely hard at it. Brett's been consistent this spring.

"His work's paid off, his body's maturing and he's been steady."

Kendrick's steadiness may have made Tennessee's decision to have Thomas focus more on center the final few practices of the spring a little bit easier, though head coach Butch Jones suggested that move was more about Thomas and thus would've happened anyway.

The sophomore is more natural at center after playing there exclusively prior to joining the Vols, and though the hope may be that he'll either push or even beat out returning starter Mack Crowder, Thomas's tackle days aren't over.

"(It's) trying to locate and find our top five, our best five," Jones said. "Coleman did play some right tackle today. Everything is about competition, because it's not just about the best five. It's really the best 10 in terms of depth and everything. It's moving him around, but Brett has been a model of consistency all spring."

Jones credited Kendrick for playing with a greater level of physicality and confidence this spring, and Kendrick knew he needed to get tougher physically and mentally if he wanted to see his playing time increase.

"That's always been a knock," he said.

"I lost my confidence sometimes last year, whether it was getting beat on a play or in practice," he added, "but I feel very, very confident right now in what I'm doing."

That confidence appears to have paid off.

"I'm sure it was an attitude for him," Kerbyson said. "It's his shot to step up. We had a tackle leave in Jacob Gilliam, so we needed another one. He probably took that upon himself in saying, 'Hey, I'm going to be that extra tackle.' He did a great job with it, and he's doing great this spring."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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