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2019 Tennessee Positional Preview: Offensive Line

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We list some options and the best case scenarios.

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

It’s no secret that the Tennessee offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2018. A mix of injuries, failed development, and downright bad luck meant that the Volunteers’ front five were often the source of offensive impotence. Granted, the coaching staff probably didn’t expect two of their best starters to miss a combined 17 games, though that hardly justifies the performances we saw throughout the year.

First, the good news: Help is on the way. Tennessee has two 5-star tackles, one 4-star guard, and another 3-star tackle from the 2019 class on campus. The incoming group unfortunately lost one of their higher potential signees in 3-star guard Melvin McBride, but overall this year’s signees still represent a monumental step towards overhauling the line.

Now, the bad news: There’s a lot more steps to be fulfilled before the line can be considered a strength. The most important storyline for 2019 is how many of those steps they take. Young talent can radically change the outlook, but there needs to be veteran experience to help it along.

We’re taking a look at the ideal offensive line situation for Tennessee in 2019. We’ve listed off some scenarios and taken in to account how various battles might play out. Below, we’ve highlighted the three best offensive lines that Tennessee can trot out for next season. Keep in mind that we are still basing some of our lineups off last season’s results. It’s very possible that someone listed under the “Depth” portion of this article can turn it around and become a full blown starter.

Best Case

LT: Wanya Morris
LG: Trey Smith
C: Brandon Kennedy
RG: Jahmir Johnson
RT: Darnell Wright

If this turns out to be the Tennessee starting offensive line for 2019, the offense could make a gigantic leap from the previous season.

At tackle, both of your 5-star recruits are living up to the hype and became starters when they stepped on campus. The future returns could also be tremendous considering they would be starting for at least three years. Morris’ spring game performance was disappointing, but left tackle is a hard position to get comfortable within a few months. That also means that Wright will have a slightly easier time cracking the rotation.

There’s a chance that the inside is more of a strength however. Having the freshmen at tackle means that Trey Smith can move inside and let his run blocking take over. If Smith was already one of the better tackles in the league when healthy, imagine what he could do from the left guard spot. He also gets paired with Jahmir Johnson, who was one of the few bright spots on last year’s offensive line. Johnson continues to bulk up and would benefit greatly with a switch to right guard.

Does this offensive line catapult Tennessee to a top-25 offense? Probably not. Could this offensive line be the difference between a 7-5 season and an 8-4 season? I think so.

Alternative

LT: Trey Smith
LG: Jahmir Johnson
C: Brandon Kennedy
RG: Darnell Wright
RT: Wanya Morris

Let’s take a slightly pessimistic view and say that Wanya Morris struggles at left tackle like he did in the spring game. It doesn’t mean he’s a lost cause or that he can’t do the job adequately, but the staff feels that a different setup would be better for the line. This is likely the best possible setup in that scenario.

You move Morris to right tackle, which is objectively easier to handle for a freshman. Especially if their weakness relates to the speed and quickness required of the position. That pushes Smith back out to left tackle, which is a net positive from an experience standpoint.

So what happens to Darnell Wright? Well, you get your best players on the field no matter what. Wright has the build and strength to be a true asset at the guard position, and right guard might be the best spot possible for him to start his collegiate career.

The obvious downside here is that every defense will try and attack the right side to fluster the true freshmen. That could be a problem at the beginning of the season and it could be mentally taxing on them.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Assume Trey Smith Is Out

LT: Wanya Morris
LG: Jahmir Johnson
C: Brandon Kennedy
RG: Ryan Johnson
RT: Darnell Wright

The sad truth is that Trey Smith cannot be penciled in as a full season starter. His medical condition is very serious, and if it flares up again, he might choose to hang up the cleats. To give a somewhat accurate article, we need to imagine a scenario where Smith is out.

Fortunately, Tennessee’s great recruiting class means it will not look radically different. Smith’s absence means that even if Morris struggles, you’d rather have him take his lumps and learn the position than try and put someone else in at left tackle.

The main difference comes with the right guard spot. The two main options here are K’Rojhn Calbert and Ryan Johnson. The latter was the original starting right guard before Brandon Kennedy suffered a torn ACL after the opener. He didn’t light the world on fire at center, but it’s also not where he was supposed to play. If Kennedy is fully healthy and stays that way, Johnson will probably get his chance to show what he can do.

If not, Calbert has apparently impressed the staff with his spring practice progress, even making it to the first team by the spring game. He still has some time to work out kinks in his game before he’s ready to be a full blown starter. Though that could come earlier than expected if Kennedy gets injured again.

Depth

G: K’Rojhn Calbert, Riley Locklear, Jackson Lampley
T: Marcus Tatum, Chris Akporoghene
G/T: Jerome Carvin, Nathan Niehaus, Ollie Lane

Depth is where the biggest improvements can be seen. This list has 21 combined starts between Locklear (2017), Tatum, Carvin, and Niehaus. Not all of those were particularly good starts, but it’s a nice asset to have in your backups.

Guard is a bit more encouraging than tackle. Calbert is likely the first off the bench should anything happen to one of the starters. Beyond that, it’s slanted towards young talent. Locklear only played in six games in 2018, but he does have the requisite size and more game time experience. Lampley is my pick for dark horse underclassmen to watch for. He could see the field in short-yardage situations if the staff wants to make sure they get a solid push at the line. He’s got a mean streak to him.

There’s also the tidbit that Jerome Carvin started six games at guard as a true freshman. He had an up-and-down year, but he was always a player that needed to refine his game. Carvin still possesses surprising athleticism and a versatility that will become very useful for this team. He could realistically play at any position on the line.

Tackle is less exciting. Tatum started six game at left tackle that didn’t inspire confidence in his abilities. Perhaps a year where he isn’t prematurely forced into action will help in his development.

Behind him is a whole lot of question marks. Akporoghene is not ready for SEC football and will not be ready for at least another year, so he’s not truly an option. Niehaus started at guard in 2018 but he does have the size for tackle, and that was his original position out of high school. Supposedly the staff is high on him thanks to his recent spring performances. He added weight and might pass Tatum as the first option off the bench at either spot. After him, it would appear that Carvin might be the next man up.

Ollie Lane redshirted last year and is not expected to be a major contributor. Chances are he will not be competing for a spot until maybe 2020.