Editor's Note: We proudly welcome Nathanael Rutherford to the blog, who joins us from The Daily Beacon & AllForTennessee.com
The Vols football team is facing heightened expectations coming into the 2015 season after a 7-6 season and a blowout victory over Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl. As potent as the Vols looked in 2014 on offense after Joshua Dobbs took over at quarterback, one area of concern remains heading into Butch Jones's 3rd season, and that's the offensive line.
Tennessee's offensive line was historically bad in 2014, allowing 43 sacks and 101 tackles for a loss in 13 games, both ranking last in the SEC. The line was also responsible for the 13th worst rush offense in the conference, gaining only 146.4 rushing yards per game.
One of the biggest questions facing the Vols this season will be how much the offensive line will improve and who will start along the line. So what's different in 2015 from the 2014 line?
Only guard Marcus Jackson had extensive starting experience heading into the 2014 season, and the Vols started 2 freshman and several other inexperienced linemen throughout the season. That means plenty of young players were able to gain experience last season, and all but redshirt senior Jacob Gilliam will return to Tennessee this year.
Sophomore guard Jashon Robertson was named a Freshman All-American last season, and he is one of 4 returning starters on the line. Key reserves such as Brett Kendrick, Dylan Wiesman, and Ray Raulerson also return, and the Vols have welcomed in early enrollee freshmen Jack Jones and Chance Hall along the line.
One of the biggest disappointments in 2014 was JUCO transfer Dontavius Blair's inability to crack the starting lineup and even make an impact whatsoever. He came in out of shape and lacking in technique, and he redshirted in 2014. He used the whole 2014 season and offseason to work on his conditioning and get in shape, and many eyes will be on him this spring.
"In two days, he's made a lot of progress," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said of Blair after Thursday's practice. "The strength gains he's made and just the overall conditioning level...now he's in better shape."
Head coach Butch Jones said after the first day of spring practice last Tuesday that the Vols are "trying to find the best five" on their line, and Blair is likely vying for the all-important left tackle spot on the line.
When asked if Blair is ready to contribute to the offensive line, Mahoney responded by saying, "He has to. He's got to step up."
Blair isn't the only one fighting for a spot along the line. Marcus Jackson and Jashon Robertson will likely start at left and right guard respectively, but the two tackle positions and the center position are up for grabs. Kyle Kerbyson will likely get one of the tackle positions, and Blair, Kendrick, and Jack Jones look to be fighting for whichever tackle position Kerbyson doesn't lock up.
Sophomore Coleman Thomas was expected to compete this spring and potentially play a big role in 2015, but now an offseason arrest has clouded his future with the team. Coleman was reportedly arrested on felony theft charges, and he was removed from all team activities before Thursday's practice. His arrest thins out the offensive line competition, and it will take away valuable reps for the sophomore.
Before the arrest, Thomas was taking reps at center along with Mack Crowder. Now Thomas's future with the Vols is uncertain, and Crowder will likely move forward as the starter.
Spring is a time for improvement, and no unit needs improvement more than Tennessee's offensive line. The conference's worst offensive line in 2014 will need to take a big step forward in 2015 to protect QB Josh Dobbs and aid the thin running back corps. If the line doesn't improve in 2015, neither will the Vols.
All stats via CFB Stats unless noted otherwise