(This was actually question number two in our countdown, but we bumped it up given the unfolding events of the week.)
Last year Tennessee's offensive line was abysmal. It was the most specific problem I can remember a Tennessee team having, preventing the Vol offense from doing a number of things well or even at all. Tennessee was terrible running the ball in short yardage, couldn't hold blocks long enough to be dynamic downfield in the passing game, and playing quarterback was not for the faint of heart. If you like numbers - and no one liked these numbers - the Vols gave up 3.3 sacks per game and earned 3.63 yards per carry. The latter bested only Vanderbilt in the SEC, the only two teams to average less than four yards per carry. And the former was the worst in the SEC and 120th in college football, with only James Franklin and Dave Clawson leading squads that gave up more sacks in power conferences.
The saving grace here is the difference Josh Dobbs made. Tennessee gave up 30 sacks in its first seven games and then just 13 in the final six. But Dobbs was still sacked six times against Missouri, and UT averaged only 3.7 yards per carry against Vanderbilt. Dobbs made a big difference, but there were still some glaring issues up front.
The most encouraging news came as it did for the whole team: Tennessee's offense was incredibly impressive in the bowl game, with the line giving up just one sack and the Vols churning for 5.5 yards per carry. Iowa came in with a solid defense and the Vols came in with the same group of linemen they'd been playing all year. Tennessee just did it better, faster.
The Vols signed five offensive linemen this February, including a pair of four-stars in Drew Richmond and Jack Jones. But after losing only former walk-on Jacob Gilliam to graduation, the assumption was the Vols would start with the same faces from last year and build on their momentum. We saw the dangers of playing freshmen last fall, with Jashon Robertson and Coleman Thomas earning early snaps against elite defenses. Richmond, Jones, and the rest of the freshmen were believed to there for depth only. The growing consensus was we would see, left to right, Kyler Kerbyson, Marcus Jackson, Mack Crowder, Jashon Robertson, and Brett Kendrick.
And then fall camp opened, and in just one week an injury may change almost all of that. Marcus Jackson, a fifth-year senior guard who redshirted back in 2013 when the Vols were so stacked up front, is reportedly out for at least two months with an arm injury. And now the scramble is on.
Wes Rucker's story lists Kendrick sliding inside, getting some reps at guard. Jashon Robertson was getting some looks at center. If the coaching staff falls back to the "play the best five" mantra, who will step into the void created by Jackson's injury, and where? And after Coleman Thomas, is one of the freshmen the next best option?
A position group that was already so maligned is now faced with some level of redefinition. A number of factors outside much of the coaching staff's control have hampered the development of the offensive line and thus the entire offense. Tennessee continues to pay for the sins of Derek Dooley, who signed zero offensive linemen in 2012. Butch Jones signed junior college transfer Dontavius Blair, but thus far he has been unable to earn meaningful snaps. Add in Jacob Gilliam playing on a torn ACL and Marcus Jackson's injury this week, and Tennessee has been both bad and unlucky on the offensive line. The talent issue has been addressed to some degree, but much of it is still freshman talent.
Offensive line was already one of this year's biggest questions and one of the biggest factors in determining Tennessee's ceiling before Jackson's injury. What we know now suggests the best case scenario with Jackson's injury has him coming back for the second half of the season, but much of Tennessee's fate may have already been decided by then. So now Tennessee has 25 days to not only figure out who their best five are, but where exactly they'll line up in Jackson's absence.
Players like Jalen Hurd, who have shown us flashes of brilliance, need a solid offensive line to reach their full potential. There's certainly still a chance the Vols can be solid up front this fall. But one of the season's biggest question marks just got more complicated, and the answers remain uncertain. Here's hoping the best five and beyond continue to grow from their strong play against Iowa, and redefine their own story in a big way this fall.