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Tennessee Positional Preview: Talented youth will make or break Vols’ offensive line

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A look at the OL.

NCAA Football: Florida at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

(HIGHLY) OFFENSIVE LINE

First -- We had a bit of a break in these previews with the NCAA Tournament going on, so if you want to look at the previous installments again, or if you missed them the first time, you can find the quarterback preview here and the running backs preview here.

Now, I like to think I’m pretty good with words, and I still have trouble coming up with the right words to accurately convey how bad Tennessee’s offensive line was last season. I don’t really care to be that critical of college players, but there’s no way to objectively analyze the offensive line without being a bit hard on them. I touched on how bad they were a little in the Guarantano preview, only because I felt like his struggles and the offensive lines were so intertwined.

Tennessee is lying in the bed of its own making, though, even if nobody on the current staff is actually responsible for it. Tennessee signed just three offensive linemen in both the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes. Trey Smith was a five-star in 2017 and Ryan Johnson was a 4-star in 2016, but the other four guys were 3-star recruits. That’s just not enough quality players.

(Speaking on just the quantity, not even the quality, for comparison, Alabama signed 10 total offensive line recruits in the 2016 and 2017 classes, nabbing five in each class.)

To make matters worse, Tennessee lost Chance Hall, Tanner Antonutti and Devante Brooks to various career-ending injuries since the end of the 2018 season.

Tennessee will also likely be without former No. 1 overall recruit Trey Smith as he’s been listed as out indefinitely with a recurring blood clot issue. He started all seven games last season before UT announced his medical concerns had resurfaced. Though he’s been participating in drills, he’s not seen any actual contact yet this spring, and I don’t anticipate Smith being a factor on the offensive line this season.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean he won’t play. I have no special insight on the subject, and Pruitt has been about as positive in his comments about Smith’s potential to play again as he ever is about anything. So I could certainly be wrong. Let’s hope I am.

But, for me, it’s better to be prepared for him to not play again and be pleasantly surprised if he does than it is to expect him to play, despite a legitimate life-threatening condition, and be disappointed when he doesn’t.

Even with all the attrition, Pruitt is making progress as he signed four OL in his abbreviated 2018 class and added five more for 2019. Still -- he can’t undo what’s been done, and he’s got to make do with what he’s got.

Aside from Smith’s health, the development of Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris will be the most integral storyline to Tennessee’s success on the offensive line. Both are 6-foot-5 plus and weigh more than 300 pounds as freshmen. 2015 was the last time Tennessee signed even two 4-star offensive linemen, so the influx of two 5-star offensive linemen could have an immense impact.

Brandon Kennedy is the lone senior offensive linemen on the roster, but he’s had two seasons cut short because of injuries. Junior Ryan Johnson leads the team having played in 24 career games, while Nathan Niehaus, Marcus Tatum and Jahmir Johnson are the most experienced of the rest of the guys in the group. But aside from Kennedy, who is a transfer from Alabama, the four others entered the program at below 300 pounds and have been playing catchup to the rest of the SEC in the weight room.

Nonetheless, it’s not a given that both Wright and Morris will immediately unseat the incumbents on the offensive line just because they’re more physically advanced at an earlier age than the other guys in the room. Tennessee had one of the least-experienced groups in the country going into last season and, in addition to the likely subtraction of Smith, they lost would-be senior Drew Richmond to transfer.

Recently, Pruitt was complimentary of Morris, Niehaus, Jahmir Johnson, redshirt sophomore K’Rojhn Calbert and Jerome Carvin. Perhaps those are the five guys, right now, that are playing the best? We’ll get a decent idea where Pruitt’s head is at when the starters for the Orange and White game are announced, but it’s likely that the starters for the spring game aren’t the same group that will start once the season begins. Either way, I find it interesting that the most experienced lineman, Ryan Johnson, was left out of Pruitt’s most recent commendation.

It’s not really a surprise that an undersized, inexperienced group struggled in the SEC last year, and Pruitt’s attempt to overhaul the position on the recruiting trail has been somewhat mitigated by injuries to the guys that were already on the roster. If the incoming freshman class is really, really good, then Tennessee might be just okay on the offensive line. Otherwise, it could be another arduous season for Jarrett Guarantano and the rest of the Tennessee offense.