10 Questions for 2013 #3 - Offensive Line

Scott Cunningham

How much will starting over up front cost the Vols this fall?

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
The Vols may be faster and lighter up front, but they almost certainly won't be better this fall.  That's not to say the current players and incoming recruits, most notably four-star tackle Jack Jones, won't ultimately make up a very good line for the Volunteers.  But this fall Tennessee will probably be playing behind a line that is more weakness than strength.  And unlike the defensive line, which may also be low on talent but is high on body count, Tennessee really can't afford injuries up front.  There are individual players like A.J. Johnson at middle linebacker the Vols would certainly hate to lose.  But for an entire position group, nowhere is as thin as the offensive line.

However, we have seen this kind of youth and inexperience on the offensive line in recent years (which is symptomatic of the larger issues at Tennessee since 2007; you should only have this kind of turnover on the line once a decade or so).  Both of Tennessee's previous head coaches dealt with offensive line issues in their first season.  In 2009 Tennessee used walk-on wonder twins Cody and Cory Sullins and a freshman converted tight end in the late Aaron Douglas.  The results were sensational, to be honest, deserving far more credit than any of us are willing to give Lane Kiffin.  Montario Hardesty ran for 1,345 yards, the fourth-highest total in school history, and once Jonathan Crompton got things figured out the Vols were actually a fairly potent offense despite using mostly smoke and mirrors on the offensive line.

The next year under Derek Dooley Tennessee had graduated three of its starters up front and Douglas transferred to Alabama.  The Vols turned to their freshmen, the same group who just left here so decorated as seniors.  Smoke and mirrors gave up just 18 sacks in 13 games in 2009.  The next year, the talented young freshmen gave up 41 sacks in 13 games.  Some of those sacks were certainly the byproduct of Matt Simms holding the ball too long and the true freshman version of Tyler Bray.  But most of those sacks had also disappeared by the time those freshmen were juniors, with Tennessee giving up just eight sacks in 2012.  Freshmen are not always freshmen.

Tennessee has uncertainty at quarterback and youth waiting to explode at the skill positions.  Nothing will help the uncertainty or light the fuse better than solid offensive line play.  The Vols want to play fast, and here too lighter is better, but so is a firm grasp of the concepts.  The line will be less talented and very young, but that doesn't mean it has to be a year-long liability.  The optimistic view is the Vols stay healthy, guys like Crowder and Kerbyson simply haven't seen the field because they were sitting behind great players, Coleman Thomas already has a spring under his belt, and the winner of the left tackle battle continues to be interesting because both of the options are good.  Reality for this group means facing a strong defensive unit from Utah State right away, and it will get no easier going forward in the SEC.  As is the case with so much of this team, how well the Vols will fare in 2014 depends largely on how quickly the newcomers grow up.
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