Injuries stretch depth of Vols' offensive line to the limit

Injuries stretch depth of Vols' offensive line to the limit

November 6th, 2017 by Rob Harvey in Sports - College

Tennessee offensive lineman Trey Smith (73) and tight end Ethan Wolf (82) get off the line of scrimmage against defensive lineman Xavier Thigpen (32) and Southern Mississippi during an NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017 in Knoxville, Tenn.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

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KNOXVILLE — After Tennessee's 24-10 homecoming win against Southern Mississippi this past Saturday night, Volunteers coach Butch Jones was asked who would have entered on the offensive line if freshman Riley Locklear had been injured in the game.

Jones answered the reporter without hesitation: "You."

For a second, it hardly seemed like Jones was joking.

Tennessee started the game with six healthy scholarship offensive linemen — four of them freshmen — and needed all six to survive the bumps and bruises of the game. Locklear was on track to redshirt this season, but that changed when he had to enter in place of injured right tackle Devante Brooks.

"I don't think there's any coach on our staff that has been through it like this," Jones said. "Especially when we started the season that was our best depth situation we've had here ever. Now we're down to six. Give those individuals credit."

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With senior Brett Kendrick and sophomores Drew Richmond and Marcus Tatum out because of injuries entering the game, the Vols went with Trey Smith and Brooks — the former a true freshman, the latter a redshirt freshman — at the tackle positions.

Due to injuries, Brooks hadn't played in a football game since his sophomore year of high school and had been a tight end up until the end of last season. Senior offensive lineman Jashon Robertson said he prepared Brooks for what was to come and was complimentary of his play.

"The first thing I told him, I was like, 'Dang, man, you haven't played a game since the 10th grade. You're going to be hurt. You're going to be tired out there,'" Robertson said. "I just tried to prepare his mind for what his body was going to feel physically over the course of a game.

"But Devante, he did a very good job with his preparation throughout the week. He did the best that he could today, and we appreciate his efforts."

Smith, who played left tackle against the Golden Eagles, had started every game of the season at right guard before Saturday.

Robertson and fellow senior Coleman Thomas were the most experienced players on the line to start the game. When Thomas went down briefly with an injury later in the game, Locklear was forced to step in again, which put four freshmen on the offensive line.

Still, a week after giving up seven sacks in a loss to Kentucky, the Vols allowed just two against Southern Miss.

"A lot of guys had to step in and step up," Robertson said. "I think the guys that did end up stepping in on the O-line did a really good job today. They did everything they could to put us in a position to win the game, and that's what ended up happening. I'm very proud of the effort they've put in throughout this week to prepare for this moment. I'm happy for those guys."

If the Vols had been forced to go past Locklear, it would have gotten dicey. Walk-ons Brian Garvey and Joe Keeler apparently might have been next. Jones also indicated walk-on Joey Cave, who is listed as a defensive tackle, would have been ready to play on the offensive line.

However, Jones was happy he wasn't forced to make that decision.

"Joey Cave is a young man that we moved over to offense that would be able to go, and we have a few others that would be ready to go, but it would really be unfair to them because they have had very limited reps," Jones said. "That's why we've asked a lot out of these kids, playing a lot of different positions in practice and all that. That's football, and they showed some true heart and some true grit tonight."

Quarterback situation

In his postgame news conference, Jones did not reveal any information on an apparent leg injury to starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano that sidelined him for the second half. Guarantano could have re-entered if needed, Jones said, but the coach expressed confidence in freshman Will McBride, who made his college debut.

"Will has a quiet confidence about himself," Jones said. "He doesn't get rattled much. It's hard to really get an emotional response out of him, and the kids believe in him."

Kongbo will return

Defensive end Jonathan Kongbo is expected to return for this Saturday's game at Missouri. The redshirt junior was suspended against Southern Miss because of a violation of team rules.

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