As you may be aware, Tennessee lost every starter from the 2013 offensive line. Losing every starter at any position group is tough to handle, and offensive line might be the toughest. But the coaching staff is working hard to fill the gaps with recruiting. Here's what you need to know.
Who's returning from last year:
C Mack Crowder (redshirt junior)
OT Marques Pair (redshirt senior)
OT Kyler Kerbyson (redshirt junior)
OG Marcus Jackson (redshirt junior)
OG Dylan Wiesman (sophomore)
OL Brett Kendrick (redshirt freshman)
OL Austin Sanders (redshirt freshman)
Who's already on campus (from the class of 2014):
OT Dontavius Blair (JUCO, two years of eligibility) (4* 247 composite, 4* 247, 4* Rivals, 4* ESPN, 4* Scout)
OT Ray Raulerson (3* 247 composite, 3* 247, 3* Rivals, 3* ESPN, 3* Scout)
C Coleman Thomas (3* 247 composite, 3* 247, 3* Rivals, 3* ESPN, 3* Scout)
Who's expected to sign on Wednesday:
OT Orlando Brown (4* 247 composite, 3* 247, 3* Rivals, 3* ESPN, 3* Scout)
Offensive line is one of the hardest positions to project, because most prospects will have to grow into an SEC-lineman body, and for those who already have one in high school, it can be difficult to tell whether they have elite potential or whether they just spent high school being bigger than everyone else. In an ideal world, most commitments at the position will be redshirted in their first year, will sit back behind older players in their second year, and will not start getting serious reps until their redshirt sophomore season.
Because of this pattern, it can be hard to tell what Tennessee has in its six first or second-year linemen already on campus. Ideally, the coaching staff can be trusted to evaluate talent, but even with the best coaches, offensive line is never going to be like receiver, where you know a can't-miss recruit from the day he signs. On the line, you sign guys with potential, give them a couple years in the strength-and-conditioning program, and then see what you have.
And what Tennessee has now is not encouraging. Only four scholarship linemen will be entering their third, fourth, or fifth year in the program this fall. And one of the four, redshirt senior Marques Pair, has shown little evidence of a breakout, playing in only six games in his first four years on campus. That leaves three redshirt juniors to anchor the line: center Mack Crowder, tackle Kyler Kerbyson, and guard Marcus Jackson. None of the three have started regularly in their Tennessee career, but all have gotten significant minutes in relief and will be expected to take over starting roles in their fourth years on the Hill.
The Vols desperately need big things from those three, because there's not much behind them. Dooley abandoning OL recruiting in 2012 puts Tennessee without a single third-year player on the roster, and sophomore Dylan Wiesman and a pair of redshirt freshmen are the Vols' next most senior players. Wiesman drew rave reviews from the coaching staff last fall and was an oft-used backup guard as a true freshman. He'll be expected to take over a starting job this year. Brett Kendrick and Austin Sanders both redshirted last year, and it's not clear what expectations are reasonable for them or even where on the line they'll expect to play.
Needless to say, the Vols needed an infusion of talented bodies on the line--both freshmen to replenish the pipeline and JUCOs to contribute immediately. And while the Vols haven't brought in enough to restore their numbers, the coaching staff has snagged three freshmen and a JUCO. Dontavius Blair, a consensus four-star, comes in with two years to play and is expected to start from day one opposite Kyler Kerbyson at tackle. Blair is in the running for most important recruit of the 2014 class, as the Vols simply did not have the bodies to fill the gaping holes left at tackle by Ja'Wuan James and Antonio Richardson. If Blair doesn't start immediately, it's not clear that Tennessee has a Plan B.
Also on campus are Coleman Thomas and Ray Raulerson. Thomas is a tough, 6'6", 300-pound center who would probably be asked to redshirt under normal conditions but who will at least have the benefit of a spring in Knoxville and may be required to provide snaps in relief of Mack Crowder. Raulerson, a three-star from Tampa, is a bit more concerning, as he will need to build on his 6'5", 280-pound frame to play tackle in the SEC. Ordinarily, that wouldn't be a problem, as he would be looking at a redshirt year. But right now, a lot will depend on whether the Vols can get solid backup minutes from Kendrick and Sanders. Raulerson is noted for his pass blocking but is solid in the run game as well. He will just need to improve on his size and strength.
The Vols have only one unsigned commitment on the offensive line: jumbo tackle Orlando Brown Jr. Brown is the son of an NFL veteran and has the size already at 6'8", 340. In fact, his problem through high school has been keeping his weight down, reportedly weighing 450 pounds in middle school. Accordingly, Brown is considered a bit of a project, and there have been recent rumors that his grades may also be a concern. With numbers as low as they are, the Vols hope those rumors are only rumors and that they will be able to transform Brown over the next few years into a dominant tackle.
Tennessee does have two defensive players--Jashon Robertson and Charles Mosley--who could move to offensive line if numbers become a major issue, but the biggest problem here is youth. The coaching staff is taking strides this year to fix the issues on the offensive line, but it can't be done in one year. It will be 2015 before the Vols finally have their numbers up to snuff, and even then the Vols will have no true seniors because of the 2012 recruiting class. For right now, they will hope Blair can start immediately and the other three will develop into solid backups in 2015 and starters in 2016.
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