Let's start here, because this is the most hopeful perspective I know of on the situation:
2009 Offensive Line
- LT Chris Scott - 6'5" 346
- LG Jacques McClendon - 6'3" 324
- C Cody Sullins - 6'1" 260
- RG Cory Sullins - 6'1" 270
- RT Aaron Douglas - 6'6" 282
2010 Offensive Line
- LT Dallas Thomas - 6'5" 295
- LG Jarrod Shaw - 6'4" 331
- C Cody Pope - 6'6" 290
- RG Jer'Quari Schofield - 6'6" 331
- RT Ja'Wuan James - 6'7" 313
We're giving up a ton at left tackle...but overall, the 2010 line has 12 inches and 78 pounds on last year's version. Bigger, stronger...and younger. Much, much younger.
Last year at this time, we were worried about how the Vols would fill one spot on the line with a player who had zero experience. This year, it's that problem times five. To place any expectation on this line right away is unfair - not only have they not played individually, they haven't played together. Any cohesion between them will have to be formed along the way, though the "o-line pride" talk during the offseason is certainly what you want to hear.
There will be weak spots individually and weak spots on the whole, with everything compounded by a new quarterback and a new running back. I think Tauren Poole will be fine, but the expectation of "great backs will find a way to get yards" can be proven false.
For whatever reason, it seems like it took until the bowl game last year for teams to figure out they were bigger than us. So much of what the '09 line did was smoke and mirrors and Hardesty, but even he - a great back last year - had no breathing room against the Hokies. Hardesty had 18 carries for 39 yards - 2.2 per - and Jonathan Crompton took a beating en route to the hospital.
But no other team really dominated the Vols up front last year, and while VT was certainly good, so were Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina. Though Hardesty couldn't push through against UCLA, he got better as the year went along, even against defenses that knew what was coming. The running game didn't suffer because of an undersized line with two walk-ons, and the Vols allowed only 18 sacks all year - six in the bowl game - good for 31st in the nation.
If this bunch gives up only 18 sacks and Tauren Poole even comes close to what Hardesty did last year, I think we'll take it.
It's the little things with a new line: false starts, center exchanges, missed assignments that create blown plays, etc. It's also a place where injuries live, and as green as the Vol starters will be, the backups even more so, so Tennessee has to stay healthy. And of course, this is a year on the whole where the Vols could use every little thing they can get, so any injury or botched play is going to hurt even more.
And yet, when you look at the size and the pedigree, there is reason to believe that, longterm, this group can get the job done. Only Shaw is a senior, while James and Schofield are freshmen. This group has a chance to play together for a long time, and eventually live up to their size and hype. There are others, like James Stone, who should also have a chance to get in the mix with lots of opportunities.
If the line is merely serviceable this year - don't get the quarterbacks killed, don't be responsible for a ton of turnovers, and at least gives us the chance to sustain drives - it'll be a small victory for Tennessee. The main thing is avoiding the worst case scenario - aside from injuries - of teams getting free shots on Simms/Bray and Tauren Poole finding something in the neighborhood of three yards per carry; basically the Virginia Tech game every week. If this line can just give the rest of the offense a chance, Tennessee can compete. And in time, this position group can make the greatest leap from liability to strength.
Until then? Cross your fingers and say your prayers.