The Times Free Press is taking a daily positional look at the 2017 University of Tennessee football team leading up to the first practice Saturday. Today we look at the offensive line:
Every contributor from Tennessee's 2016 offensive line returns, except for graduated center and guard Dylan Wiesman. That means seven players with more than 100 combined starts will anchor a unit that will have few excuses for any miscues while the Volunteers adjust to a new quarterback. The returning depth and versatility of the group give first-year offensive line coach Walt Wells and Tennessee's staff a Rubik's Cube of starting possibilities along the offensive line. Jashon Robertson is the leader of the bunch. The Nashville native is a three-year starter at guard and also played center during spring practice while fellow senior Coleman Thomas recovered from an emergency appendectomy. Robertson was one of three Tennessee players to represent the Vols at SEC media days this month and clearly is respected by his teammates and coaches. Chance Hall, Drew Richmond and Brett Kendrick return with plenty of starting experience at tackle, while Jack Jones and Venzell Boulware are back with starting experience at guard. Marcus Tatum, who played in two games as a true freshman last season, returns as a sophomore. He and a group of four redshirt freshmen will provide additional depth.
An intriguing storyline within the position group will be the utilization of Trey Smith. The true freshman from Jackson, Tenn., enrolled in January and impressed the coaching staff with his size and maturity. Fresh off celebrating his 18th birthday in June, the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Smith will be hard to keep off the field this season. Smith was considered one of the top high school prospects in the nation and could make a run at a starting job that would otherwise belong to one of the veterans. K'Rojhn Calbert is a freshman from Warren County High School, while Riley Locklear is a true freshman from Huntington, W. Va. Both could be redshirt candidates.
Depth, versatility and experience are strengths for the offensive line. Three seniors — Robertson, Thomas and Kendrick — provide the group with a more established veteran presence than it had last year. Coaches and players have cited the impending competition for playing time during preseason practice as a positive, saying it should bring out the best in those vying for starting positions.
If Thomas struggles with injury again this season, there is little experience behind him at center. Robertson played the position in the spring, but guard is his natural position and accurate snaps are a necessity for a team that plays from the shotgun as much as Tennessee. It's unlikely that Tennessee's quarterback will be as skilled at escaping pressure as the departed Joshua Dobbs was for the past four seasons. This group needs to improve its pass protection in 2017.
Contact David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org.