Vols' Kendrick eyeing 'huge opportunity' at tackle

Vols' Kendrick eyeing 'huge opportunity' at tackle

March 30th, 2015 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Vols T logo

Vols T logo

KNOXVILLE -- Brett Kendrick thought he performed well enough in two cameos as Tennessee's starting right tackle last season to earn more of them.

That's the past, though, and there's too much of an opportunity this spring to help the Volunteers in a position where they badly need it to worry about 2014 now.

"Huge opportunity," Kendrick said following Saturday's practice. "We've got Kyler (Kerbyson) coming back, but Jacob Gilliam is obviously gone now, and there's that one open spot. I'm trying as hard as I can to get into that spot.

"It's just a big opportunity for everybody. For (Dontavius) Blair, for Coleman (Thomas) -- we've got all of us really working hard to get that spot."

In a season that was a struggle and then some for Tennessee's offensive line, the tackle spots had it the toughest often struggling with the top speed rushers they faced, like Missouri's duo of Markus Golden and Shane Ray, Florida's Dante Fowler and Oklahoma's Eric Striker.

The situation at tackle was dire enough that Gilliam started seven games despite tearing his ACL in the season opener.

How much better Tennessee is on the offensive line, particularly at tackle, figures to be a big key for the Vols as they chase elevated expectations in 2015.

Five-star recruit Drew Richmond will join offensive line coach Don Mahoney's group in the summer, but in the meantime, with Thomas suspended indefinitely, Kerbyson and Kendrick probably will man the first-team spots on the left and right.

Kerbyson's frame suggests he should be playing guard, but he's focused on making left tackle his home after playing and, from his perspective, improving there nearly all of last season.

"My first game in Oklahoma, you could tell the difference in everything doing with Oklahoma and then a late game like Vandy or Iowa," he said. "My sets, my run-blocks -- everything was different. Now that I've gotten a whole winter of workouts in going into spring ball, and I concentrate on that, I've gotten even better.

"I'm not the longest guy. A lot of the other guys like Brett, like Blair, they have more length than I do. So I've got to do it with something else. I've got to do it with my footwork. I've got to do it with my shoulders staying squared and being able to get in front of somebody, not only just punch them. I'm just working on my other game aspects to make me even better."

Blair is a touted junior college transfer Tennessee beat Auburn and Texas A&M to land, but he redshirted last season after enrolling in January. The year off allowed Blair to improve his strength and conditioning levels. Those two areas played the biggest role in keeping him from being an immediate-impact player.

"He was more fighting the practice last year than he was the guys in practice in terms of the technique and the fundamentals and the scheme and all that," Mahoney said last week. "He was battling his own physical condition. Now he's better in shape, and he's stronger. His sense of urgency's great.

"He has to (help), he's got to step up, and he's responded that way."

Injuries twice forced the 6-foot-6, 316-pound Kendrick into the starting five, and in the two games he started against Arkansas State and Alabama, the Vols gave up just three sacks and ran for 366 yards.

By the numbers, those were two of the line's better performances, and though Kendrick knows he didn't play perfectly, he thought he did enough to keep his starting spot.

"Sometimes I did, but I saw a lot of mistakes that I had made, and that's just me being prideful in my performance," Kendrick said. "I thought I did enough, but the coaches saw some stuff, and of course I saw it, too, when they pointed it out to me. I understood and I knew I just had to get back to work.

"It was really tough on me, but I had good teammates around me and good guys, and Coach Mo really stayed with me through it all. He really pointed out what I needed to do from a physicality standpoint -- that was my main problem, I think. It was tough, but they helped me get through it."

During Kendrick's first season in 2013, the former Christian Academy of Knoxville star was one of Butch Jones's favorite targets for practice barbs, but the Tennessee coach was complimentary of Kendrick on Saturday.

"He's responded, and he's shown great resiliency," Jone said. "He's put his head down, he's continued to work and he's going to be rewarded for that. He needs to just continue to work and treat every day as if it's the most important day in working to be the best person, best player he can possibly be.

"He's done that, so I've been really, really encouraged by everything that I've seen from Brett."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.