Most of the general commentary about the Vols right now centers around, "Lost everything on their offensive and defensive lines, won't be very good." It's a fair point; we looked at the defensive line earlier in our series and discussed how the coaching staff might actually rank it as a greater concern than today's topic, though our guys don't think it's going to be quite as bad as many are projecting.
On the surface the offensive line is a bigger concern because the Vols are replacing not just seniors, but NFL-caliber seniors. A group headlined by Ja'Wuan James, Zach Fulton, and Tiny Richardson has left town with triple-digit starts under its belt, leaving only guard Marcus Jackson with any significant experience in their wake. Jackson was wisely redshirted by Butch Jones last season when Alex Bullard won a starting role, ensuring there would be at least some experience coming back to Team 118.
What will join Jackson up front remains a mystery no matter which names fill out the depth chart. A pair of redshirt juniors from East Tennessee, Mack Crowder and Kyler Kerbyson are the early favorites to land starting jobs at center and the other guard position. But because of the talents of the five guys who just left, neither has any significant experience.
The tackle spots are particularly intriguing and you hope not in a disastrous kind of way. Tennessee signed only three offensive linemen in its Top 5 2014 class, four if you count massive OL/DL Charles Mosley. But Mosley's broken leg in a car accident this week should rule him out of the equation this fall. Southwest Virginia's Coleman Thomas came to campus this spring and immediately won a starting role by the Orange & White Game. Thomas, who was just a consensus three-star prospect, clearly has an opportunity to create a place for himself with this group for a long time if he can be successful.
The critical left tackle position has drawn the most curiosity. The Vols signed four-star juco Dontavius Blair, 6'8" 303 lbs, with thoughts of him protecting the quarterback immediately. But this spring Blair was unable to hold off fifth-year senior Jacob Gilliam, and the Farragut product won the starting job for the Orange & White Game and by all accounts has held it through summer workouts despite giving up four inches and plenty of hype to Blair. It will be very interesting to see how this one shakes out; Blair has more of the physical tools and the higher ceiling, but we love stories like Gilliam's and love having the most competitive guys win the day.
Behind those five are even bigger question marks. Marques Pair is one of the few seniors on the roster, but has never been able to crack the top line of the depth chart. Then you've got three 2013 signees in sophomore Dylan Wiesman, last year's backup right guard appearing in ten games, and redshirt freshmen Brett Kendrick and Austin Sanders. Ray Raulerson also joins the mix as a 2014 signee. Five of these ten names expected to appear on the two deep are from East Tennessee, with Gilliam (Farragut), Kerbyson (Knox Catholic), and Kendrick (CAK) all from Big Orange Country HQ.
Last year we felt like the Vols would have one of the best offensive lines in the nation, but Butch Jones asked them to lose weight to better fit his system and there were a few bumps along the way. This year the Vols will be another 60 pounds lighter if Gilliam holds his starting job, half of the weight loss from last year coming at his spot:
- LT: Tiny Richardson 6'6" 327 - Jacob Gilliam 6'4" 296
- LG: Alex Bullard 6'2" 302 - Marcus Jackson 6'2" 304
- C: James Stone 6'3" 291 - Mack Crowder 6'2" 286
- RG: Zach Fulton 6'5" 323 - Kyler Kerbyson 6'4" 304
- RT: Ja'Wuan James 6'6" 318 - Coleman Thomas 6'6" 311