KNOXVILLE — Tennessee comes out of its open date and heads into Alabama game week facing a dilemma.
With multiple players dealing with injuries and two freshmen having performed well in their first significant action during the 38-31 win over Georgia on Oct. 10, the Volunteers have some decisions to make about who to play on the offensive line.
And coaches have to make those calls as Tennessee prepares to play the eighth-ranked Crimson Tide — who are coming off an impressive win at Texas A&M — in Tuscaloosa on Saturday afternoon.
With the Vols already without one starter on the offensive line entering the Georgia game, two more went down after kickoff. That forced guard Jack Jones and tackle Chance Hall into the right side of the line, and the two freshmen proved they could get the job done — and that perhaps they deserve more playing time the second half of the season.
The fact that Hall and Jones "have done nothing but work every day to get better" gave Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord comfort even before the Vols used them against the Bulldogs, a viewpoint shared by offensive line coach Don Mahoney.
"They've had a great opportunity," DeBord said last week. "There's some games they didn't get in. Then the next week, they go right back out to practice and they're competing again. Coach Mahoney and I talked about as we were going through that game, when somebody went down, what's our next step. What do we do? I felt good with those guys, and so did Coach Mahoney."
Does the coaching staff feel good enough about Hall and Jones to start them or play them extensively on the road against a top-10 team with the best defense in the Southeastern Conference?
The health of the other players may be the biggest factor. Guard Jashon Robertson, who's been playing through a sore ankle essentially the whole season, and center/guard Mack Crowder both left the Georgia game with ankle injuries and didn't practice last week.
Right tackle Brett Kendrick didn't play at all against the Bulldogs because of an elbow injury, and though he gave it a go with a brace on his arm in practice last week, there's a concern about how effective he can be with the injury. Guard Dylan Wiesman earned the team's "My All" award after playing well against Georgia despite not being 100 percent, and he also got a little bit of a break last week.
Vols head coach Butch Jones indicated last week he believes he has more options that might make rotation on the offensive line possible.
"I read an article where the New England Patriots a couple of weeks ago had 10 different offensive line lineups in rotating players through," he said. "But this week is going to be big for a number of individuals. I think it's how they progress. I think it's how the overall health of the offensive line progresses as well.
"I'll know a little bit more," he added, "probably into the next week."
The Vols found out plenty about their rookie linemen against Georgia as Hall and Jones performed unflappably when thrown into their first SEC battle. Tennessee found success running behind them, and neither player committed any holding or false-start penalties.
"I think both guys would tell you they had some things they did well and there were some things they needed to do better," DeBord said. "I talked to Jack, in fact, and I just told him about how he had improved so much with his footwork up until that game. Then in the game there were times where he's inconsistent with it a little bit.
"I just told him that happens. You've got to keep thinking about your technique stuff. I know the next opportunity he gets, I think he'll really be a lot better with his footwork in a game situation."
The road atmosphere and Alabama's defensive talent make the prospect of starting either or both of the freshmen a daunting notion, and the Tide surely will do a better job than Georgia of pressuring and attacking that side of the line if Hall and Jones are in the game together.
"When we talked to Chance, he said, 'Coach, everything was really fast,'" Butch Jones said. "For what they were able to do, I thought they handled it remarkably. I thought they did a good job, but it's that consistency, and you're only going to get it through (game) reps and through practice."
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