There are a group of former Vols who won’t be remembered as fondly as those with a chance to cash in on all Butch Jones has been building this fall, but who were key parts of the process in getting the program to this opportunity. Between the major Kiffin/Dooley players who are more remembered for what could have been and those on Team 120 (and beyond) who will hopefully be memorable for what they accomplished, there are guys like Curt Maggitt and Brian Randolph who helped rebuild the foundation but just missed on the glory.
One of the more underrated players of this underrated group was Kyler Kerbyson, a three-star local product who signed with Derek Dooley in 2011, redshirted that fall, then sat for two years behind an all-star offensive line. When you can trot out that Tiny Richardson, Alex Bullard, James Stone, Zach Fulton, Ja’Wuan James group every Saturday for two years, you’re going to have a hard time replacing it. So in 2014 Kerbyson was part of a group that gave up 43 sacks, tied for 122nd in college football. He started every game and played three different positions on the line.
Last year with most of the same pieces only fewer freshmen, Kerbyson started every game at left tackle and Tennessee’s line gave up just 24 sacks (with three belonging to backup Quinten Dormady) while opening holes for 224 rushing yards per game. He was the only consistent starter lost to graduation, wasn’t drafted and was just cut by the Patriots. When you’re not as highly rated as that 2013 group coming in or going out and you’re the only one to replace coming into a year when you’re supposed to do things you haven’t done in a decade, you are so easy to undervalue. But Kyler Kerbyson might be Team 119’s most difficult piece to replace.
With the Vols wrapping up what they call preseason camp and moving into more weekly prep stuff with the opener two weeks from tomorrow, a battle continues to rage between Chance Hall, Brett Kendrick, and Drew Richmond for Tennessee’s offensive tackle spots. Having three solid options for two spots is yet another box the Vols can now check in 2016, but it will be interesting to see if two of them can get a firm hold.
Redshirt freshman Drew Richmond may have the slight edge at left tackle. He was the fifth highest rated recruit in the Vols' number four overall class in 2015, and thanks to Kerbyson Tennessee didn’t need to throw him in the fire right away last fall. Richmond locking up the left tackle spot seems like it would be the best possible scenario for Tennessee, because we’ve already seen the other two options perform well: Chance Hall did get a taste last year, starting seven games at right tackle and earning freshman All-American honors. Meanwhile Brett Kendrick had a solid sophomore campaign going last fall before injuries forced him out of the middle third of Tennessee’s season.
The best example of why Tennessee’s offensive line play will matter so much? Three of last year’s four heartbreaking losses featured the opposition getting to Josh Dobbs far too often:
|Opponent||Sacks Allowed||Sack Rate|
(Dormady took one sack against Northwestern, North Texas, and Western Carolina)
Alabama sacked Dobbs nearly one out of five times he dropped back, including the disastrous final drive. One reason the Vols were so stubborn on the ground against the Gators: three sacks in only 22 drop backs. Eleven of the 21 sacks Dobbs took came against Oklahoma, Florida, and Alabama.
To be fair, the Tide and Gators led the SEC in sacks last season and all three were Top 10 nationally. Teams 3-7 in those SEC rankings included Tennessee and four SEC West squads the Vols didn’t face. The line’s strong performances against Georgia and Arkansas did come against relatively weaker pass rushes, but considering the Vols allowed just two sacks in 81 drop backs in those games I’d put those weeks squarely in the positive category. On top of that, Chance Hall and Jack Jones got a lot of playing time as true freshmen against the Dawgs.
As is the case with such high expectations, there is little obvious room for improvement for Tennessee's offensive line. But protecting Dobbs as a pocket passer against the best teams on the schedule might be the biggest one. Some of the off-season conversation on Dobbs has centered around a defense’s desire to get the Vols in third-and-long and force him to throw from the pocket; I’m not sure those forwarding that opinion are looking at it the right way. Sure, the Vols love to run and want to stay ahead of schedule. But when given time to throw, Dobbs was better than anyone in the league on 3rd & 4-9 last year. It’s keeping him upright that’s the issue, and will continue to be so if the Vols find themselves in those kinds of holes against teams like Alabama.
Tennessee’s offensive line will have to find that improvement without Kerbyson but with three solid options to choose from. Who starts will be less important than who can give the passing game a better chance on third down.