Previous installments in this series:
Quarterback will be the most talked about competition this spring, and linebacker will be the unit where the Vols will need the most from the least experience. But perhaps the greatest concern for Tennessee this spring will be finding both enough bodies and enough quality on the offensive line.
As the Vols prepare to install their third offense in as many springs, the line will once again play a critical role. Two years ago, David Cutcliffe took an unheralded group and turned them into a unit that allowed only four sacks all season, leading the NCAA. Last year, under the Clawfense, the linemen had to learn new vocabulary, words like "quick" and "strong" suddenly became important, and then in the fall the o-line had to perform under the weight of a struggling quarterback(s) and passing offense.
Several players who will suit up for the Vols this year had experience on both of those lines - they're well versed in great success and frustrating failure. However, depth is incredibly thin with the losses of Anthony Parker and Ramon Foster to graduation and Ramone Johnson earlier this spring.
Can the Vols put five solid starters on the field? And do we even know enough names to serve as backups? We break down the competitors...
The easiest place to start is with Josh McNeil, the senior who has started all but three games since the day he stepped on campus. McNeil was a freshman All-America in 2006 and an honorable mention All-SEC in 2007 before he struggled along with everyone else last season. Nonetheless, his experience should be very valuable, and he can serve as the anchor for the rest of this group. McNeil has been good before...can he become great? Are his previous accolades the result of great play for a freshman, and playing with David Cutcliffe and Erik Ainge's "GET RID OF THE BALL!!!" offense...or is McNeil ready to perform on an All-SEC level now as a senior? Cody Sullins and Cody Pope served as his backup last season, and Sullins returns for his senior year as well. There are fewer questions here than anywhere else on the line.
The returning starters here have been through the fire before: seniors Jacques McClendon and Vladimir Richard provide much of what McNeil gives at center, with familiar faces and playing experience on the '07 line. One of the biggest concerns here also deals with the 2010 line; if the returning starters all keep their jobs, the Vols will start four seniors on the line this season. Going into the two-deep here, you have to start scratching your head: Darius Sawtelle and Cody Pope lack real experience at the position, and join a long list of names that Vol fans hope the coaching staff (James Cregg and Jim Chaney in this case) will breathe new life into. Other bodies out there include senior Cory Sullins and redshirt freshmen Carson Anderson and Dallas Thomas.
We assume senior Chris Scott will hold serve, though it could be at left or right tackle.
And then we take a deep breath.
It's one thing to talk about a lack of depth. It's another thing when you have absolutely no idea who your other starting tackle is going to be, and none of the options have any real playing experience.
This was made most clear by the move of redshirt freshman Aaron Douglas from tight end to tackle, with the promise of a chance to compete for the starting job. Telling, since Douglas has never played tackle.
Junior Jarrod Shaw has seen action in two games, but at 330 lbs. I'm curious to see how well he fits what Kiffin is looking for at tackle. William Brimfield is a defensive convert, and thus a complete guessing game...much like Aaron Douglas. There are plenty of guys rumored for position changes on the line...but as such, it's all pure speculation. If any of these three guys, or someone changing from another position line up at the other tackle, it'll be a brand new experience.
Kevin Revis, Rhea County's finest, was the #11 center prospect in the country from Rivals, and if he can come in and become McNeil's backup right away (which may be asking too much), perhaps it frees up Cody & Cody to play elsewhere on the line.
And then there's JerQuari Schofield, at 6'6" and a potential answer at tackle, ranked 20th in the nation at that position by Rivals. We won't know anything about either of these kids until fall, and while it would be great if they're ready to play right away, what the Vols don't want this spring is for everything to go so poorly at tackle that we have to depend on Schofield.
QUESTIONS FOR SPRING
As stated, the Vols have familiarity with four seniors, all of whom played on the 2007 line. Can any of those four - Josh McNeil, Jacques McClendon, Vladimir Richard and Chris Scott - step up and become an all-star/NFL performer? The Vols might take being merely serviceable at line right now with all the depth questions...but can these guys step up to make the Vols great up front?
And of course...who starts at the other tackle?
Again, maybe ultimately it's Schofield...but what we need this spring is for enough somebodies to step up to give us something to work with towards the fall. Hey, it'd be great if it turns out Aaron Douglas was born to play tackle. But whether it's him or someone else, the Vols need a player to step up and be ready to start by the end of spring practice.
And then it's all about depth - offensive line is probably the most dangerous place to be on the football field, and if injuries strike early or often to any of the four seniors, can the Vols develop the depth necessary to fill that void?
The line is the greatest enhancer and detractor in an offense. The Vols have a shaky quarterback situation and lots of skill players trying to break out. Will the offensive line make those situations worse...or help make them better?