Think back to the end of the Butch Jones era. Really think hard about where that offensive line group was as a whole. Outside of Trey Smith, there wasn’t anything there. By the end of 2017, what was left of Jones’ staff was simply trying to find five bodies to throw out there and get to the end of the season.
Tennessee didn’t even have enough players to form a first and second team when Jeremy Pruitt arrived in the spring of 2018.
Fast forward to today. Tennessee has added Cade Mays via transfer from Georgia and now Trey Smith has announced that he will be returning to Knoxville for his senior season. Add in five-star sophomore tackles Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright. Add in sixth-year senior center Brandon Kennedy.
Assuming Mays will indeed get his waiver to play immediately (which now suddenly seems likely), that’s four former five-star offensive line prospects and a sixth year four-star center.
Lord have mercy.
What a job Jeremy Pruitt and his staff have done to get this roster back to looking like an SEC unit. Tennessee should dominate several games up front next season and will at least be able to match Florida, Georgia and Alabama with size and strength at the line of scrimmage.
Of course, that’s just one part of the equation.
Tennessee still needs to find an answer at the quarterback position. Jarrett Guarantano will have even more competition this year as four-star passer Harrison Bailey has already enrolled. Jim Chaney will have to maximize the quarterback position to get the most out of this offense, but protection certainly shouldn’t be an issue.
Will Tennessee look to the transfer portal? Is there a quarterback in the country that doesn’t want to play behind this offensive line?
Eric Gray — well, Tennessee could probably start a Heisman campaign for him if they wanted to. The sophomore back seemed to take over the Tennessee backfield in the final two games of the season, now he’ll get the luxury of running behind this absolute unit of an offensive line in 2020.
Tennessee’s identity is clear — they’re going to run you over and wear you down. The x-factor will pretty clearly be the quarterback spot. That aside, Tennessee has really closed the gap in the SEC East this week.
Can they capitalize in 2020? This is setting up to be their best shot since 2016.