KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's offensive line finished the regular season better than it began despite making lineup changes on a weekly basis.
Injuries and ineffectiveness prompted the Volunteers to use eight different starting groups in 12 games, and tackle Brett Kendrick was the only offensive lineman to start every game. Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord acknowledged the downside to such shifting, but he's pleased with some of the development from individual players.
"You never have excuses, and whoever's up, the next man up, you go," DeBord said Wednesday, "but in the offensive line it does take continuity and it takes guys working together. When you get out of that a little bit, I think it hurts you a little bit, but you've got to overcome that. I thought our guys did a good job of really staying the course on that and working together.
"When I go back and look at our guys, I'll take Drew Richmond for example. When he started his first practice this fall and where he is today — unbelievable change in a player, unbelievable change in his mentality toward the game and everything. Right now, I told him yesterday, I kidded with him a little bit and I said, 'You've got a bounce in your step right now.' He's out there having fun. The first practice he was out there looking around like, 'Did I do right? Did I not? Did I do right?'
"Just to see that come along, that just shows you how much he's developed, and other guys, they've developed, too. It's a process, especially with younger linemen."
The Vols are slated to return 11 of their 13 scholarship offensive linemen next season, with senior Dylan Wiesman and redshirt junior Austin Sanders, a former Bradley Central standout, the only expected departures. Seven of the players expected to return started at least one game this season, and freshman Marcus Tatum appeared in two games. First-year linemen Ryan Johnson, Nathan Niehaus and Devante Brooks, a converted tight end, all redshirted.
There's certainly an eye on next season during bowl practices this month with so many offensive linemen returning.
"This bowl prep, we take it as an opportunity to get better and work on our craft," guard Jashon Robertson said. "You have a season's worth of your identity on film. You know your strengths and you know your weaknesses. You come out in bowl prep and work on those types of things to improve on.
"As far as the (starting) five go, they're going to play the best five. We've had a lot of guys that have played a lot snaps. That's healthy, that competition daily between us and on the field against the defense."
Perhaps the biggest question for Tennessee's offensive line moving beyond this season is who will be coaching it.
The current deal for offensive line coach Don Mahoney, who has been with Butch Jones every year he has been a head coach, expires at the end of February, and there's been some speculation Tennessee could make a change.
In his two seasons with the Vols, DeBord has been heavily involved with the line, and this past offseason Tennessee hired Walt Wells — formerly the offensive line coach at South Florida, New Mexico State and Western Kentucky — for a quality control position. Wells is in the mix for the offensive line coach's job at South Carolina, where Shawn Elliott left to become the new head coach at Georgia State.
For now the Vols (8-4) are working toward finishing strong in the Music City Bowl against No. 24 Nebraska (9-3) on Dec. 30. Robertson, Thomas, Wiesman and Chance Hall all missed games due to injury this season, but only Hall, who had knee surgery, will miss the bowl.
"For the most part we have an idea of who that five is if they're healthy, and it looks like we're going to be healthy going into the bowl game," DeBord said. "It's not like riding a bike when you get back on it. They've got to get back out there and get back in the flow of the technique stuff and all the little things that go into the techniques on certain combinations blocks. I've seen that happen in these three practices where we're getting better every day in individual work and in team work."
If an in-game lineup shuffle is needed in Nashville, the Vols should be prepared.
"Guys have been moving in and out since camp to this point," Robertson said. "I'm comfortable with going to battle with any one of my brothers, and I feel like we all feel that way across the board. Chemistry and continuity, that's important, but we're around each other every day and working with each other."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.