KNOXVILLE — No position on the Tennessee football team has taken a hit recently like the offensive line.
The issues started around October of 2017, when Jack Jones was forced to retire from football due to neck and shoulder injuries. Then came a wave of linemen retirements in the past eight-plus months. Tanner Antonutti. Devante Brooks. Eric Crosby. Chance Hall. Now Nathan Niehaus. All since December.
The epidemic even hit the incoming players, as freshman-to-be Melvin McBride announced in June he wouldn't be able to play.
Not the wave anybody wants to be riding.
Then there's the uncertainty about Volunteers linemen still trying to play. Although Trey Smith is attempting to come back after dealing with two separate occurrences of blood clots forming, it's unclear how much he'll be able to go. Brandon Kennedy — the team's starting center in the season opener last year — tore his ACL in practice the following week and is just now rounding back into form.
Then there's been the on-field issues, where players lacking the girth to consistently compete in the Southeastern Conference were pushed around time and time again, causing quarterback play to suffer, which in turn caused lackluster performance all over the field.
In the past two seasons, the Vols had a total of two games in which they scored at least 30 points against Football Bowl Subdivision competition. They won both, 42-41 over Georgia Tech in the 2017 Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta and 30-24 last year over Auburn, which ended an 11-game losing streak against SEC competition.
The past two seasons the Vols have averaged 21.3 points and 308.3 total yards per game — pedestrian numbers at best.
So when coach Jeremy Pruitt and his staff chose to target the offensive line in recruiting, it wasn't a surprise. The Vols brought in five new linemen, leaving four once McBride had to retire.
"Being able to have competition with the offensive line is good," junior Ryan Johnson said. "Really, it's a do-your-job kind of thing, it really is. Whatever role you can play, you do your job. It's funny, Coach Pruitt was talking the other day and he was saying, 'Do your job, whatever that may be.' I just was listening to a podcast, my minister back home, and he was just talking about the same thing. He said, 'Do your job.'
"It was kind of funny; it was one of those things that are kind of ironic. It was completely two different things, but (Pruitt) was preaching on football and talking about everybody in the field has to do their job, all 11 people. And in life, God may call you to do one thing and that may not be what you want to do, but you need to do your job, so that I thought was kind of interesting, just seeing that from different perspectives. I really think Coach Pruitt is just telling us the same thing. It's just do your job, whatever that may be. And I think a lot of guys really bought into that and are really buying into the fact that if they just do their job, we will execute and we will do what we can do and we will do our best."
But could those additions bring out the best in the players already in the program? It's possible. Returning linemen are considerably bigger than they were a year ago. For one example, Marcus Tatum was a 255-pound offensive lineman when he arrived at Tennessee. Now he's up to 320 pounds.
While much has been made about the incoming offensive linemen, it's possible only one of those guys — Wanya Morris — would start if the season began Saturday. And that would not be because the other freshmen haven't performed well, but more because the players who have been in the program have performed better.
Cream rises to the top.
"(The competition) feels good, because that's how football is supposed to be," Tatum said. "Nothing should be given. You should always earn it. It just feels good, to just love depth. People don't understand what it's like to practice and play in a game with like 10 people in the room. It's rough. Bodies are worn down, because we have to go through all the practice. The defense still needs looks, so we have to keep going.
"Now to know that we have people to help contribute to the team, it's an all-around effort, and it feels much better."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.