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Tennessee Spring Preview: Offensive line can take the next step

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A look into how the position got restocked in just two years.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Georgia State at Tennessee Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As part of our series previewing all the position groups, we break down every aspect of the team and give you an idea of what Tennessee football will be working with in 2020. So far, we’ve covered three groups in total. Those links are listed below for your interest.

Tennessee Football Spring Preview: Quarterbacks
Football Spring Preview: Wide Receivers
Tennessee Football Spring Preview: Linebackers

Next up is the offensive line: A unit which has received the majority of criticism for the past 4 years, but recently made a huge jump in 2019 thanks a major upgrade in talent and coaching. Are they poised to make a similarly large leap next season? We take a look.

Before we begin, I have to note that I always hate when spring previews leave out injured starters. The justification is that since they’re injured, they shouldn’t be the focus of the piece.

Okay, let’s add an asterisk then. But we all know that player is a starter when they come back, and it’s literally just a matter of waiting a few months. So why not give an accurate analysis of the group as whole? This piece will include players who are injured and players who will be arriving on campus later this year.

Projected Starters (We Think)

Left Tackle: Wanya Morris

Left Guard: Trey Smith

Center: Brandon Kennedy

Right Guard: Cade Mays (Alternate: Jerome Carvin)

Right Tackle: Darnell Wright

*We are anticipating that Cade Mays will be ruled immediately eligible. However, this is the NCAA we’re talking about, so we’re going to cover our bases and discuss the possibility if his request is denied.

Note that Wanya Morris had surgery this offseason and will not be a participant in spring practice. He is still expected to return for fall camp and the beginning of the season.

The two true freshman from 2019, Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright, both got their sea legs as the season came to end. They each had some rough outings, but the pair of 5-star tackles performed admirably and looked like the cornerstones of the offensive line they were billed as. Morris’ injury might set back his development slightly, but not enough to truly worry at this point. That’s a different story if he misses fall camp.

Yet the position with the most hype isn’t the tackles. It’s the interior, where Tennessee has arguably the best pair of guards in the entire nation. Trey Smith and Cade Mays both performed as top-50 linemen last season, and now they’re wearing the same beautiful orange jersey. They each bring a certain nastiness that bodes well for Tennessee’s hopes at creating an offense built around the run game.

If Mays is denied the waiver, it’s not all doom-and-gloom however. Jerome Carvin bounced back from a rough 2018 season (where he really should have been redshirting) and played well enough at right guard to lock down a starting job prior to Mays’ transfer. Carvin is really athletic for his size and is finally starting to discover how to throw around his physical gifts. Whether he’s starting next season or just a rotational player, his development will be crucial.

To top it all off: Starting center Brandon Kennedy returns for his final year of eligibility.

Having the entire starting lineup return, along with an immediate impact transfer, is probably one of the most envious situations in the country. Tennessee’s 2019 line made the leap from “terrible” to “average”—despite having two true freshmen get starter reps. Now everyone has experience and depth behind them. This group is right on track to make the leap from “average” to “good”.

Depth

Tackle: Jahmir Johnson, K’Rojhn Calbert, Chris Akporoghene, Jarious Abercrombie

Guard: Riley Locklear, Jackson Lampley, Jerome Carvin, Ollie Lane

Depth at offensive tackle is an extremely rare thing to possess. For most teams, it’s a struggle to find two good starting offensive tackles, thanks to the difficulty of the position. It’s even harder to find good backups at the tackle positions, since most kids who would be good enough to start somewhere at tackle would just leave to where they could be an immediate impact player. Tennessee has managed to beat the odds and have two quality depth pieces in Jahmir Johnson and K’Rojhn Calbert.

Both players have starting experience and are finally at the weight their position requires of them. Calbert is the more encouraging of the two, but Johnson is a high floor type of player who can help you out immensely if an injury or two occurs.

I would still note that Akporoghene seems to be coming along like the staff hoped he would. His offers in high school indicated a player who was very new to the game, but had the makings of a high level starter. While it might be asking a bit much for him to beat out veterans in front of him, write him down as a potential surprise.

Guard is a bit more volatile. The only players with quantifiable experience there are Jerome Carvin and Riley Locklear. Carvin is a great rotational piece and arguable starter. Locklear is less impressive, though he could come in handy in a pinch if the injury bug starts to spread.

The big unknown is Jackson Lampley, who I (and others) were fairly high on from the 2019 class. He redshirted last season and will likely take a backseat to the trio of Smith, Mays, and Carvin. Yet I do think they’ll find a way to get him on the field and let him show what he can do on the interior. This could even be at center, where the depth consists of two incoming freshmen.

Newcomers

Center: Cooper Mays, Javontez Spraggins

Guard: James Robinson

*Admittedly I cheated slightly with Cade Mays being put into the projected starters portion. Transfer situations get tricky, especially with someone of Mays’ caliber. This section is devoted solely to true freshmen.

The only early enrollee from the 2020 class is also the highest rated of any freshman lineman. Mays will enter a stacked interior depth chart which includes his older brother. The only way to see him playing early is if he really impresses at center and is forced to come in for Kennedy at any point. For now, regard him as more of a future option rather than an immediate impact option.

Same deal with Spraggins. I actually like Spraggins quite a bit—enough that I think he’ll be in a legitimate battle with Mays when the time comes to replace Kennedy—but he won’t be playing in 2020 unless injuries strike.

Robinson will likely redshirt. He projects best at guard, and he needs some refinement before the staff is comfortable putting him on the field. He has the tools to be very good.

Numbers Reference

These numbers are all from the end of the regular season. The bowl games changed things slightly, but bowls can have some wonky results. I double checked the post-bowl numbers and they aren’t radically different. The number in parentheses is how much the ranking improved from the previous year’s ranking. Plusses are good, minuses are bad.

Line Yards: 68th (+59)
Standard Down Line Yards: 67th (+59)
Passing Down Line Yards: 72nd (+49)
Opportunity Rate: 80th (+39)
Power Success Rate: 64th (+59)
Stuff Rate: 77th (+53)
Sack Rate: 45th (+61)
Standard Downs Sack Rate: 63rd (+49)
Passing Downs Sack Rate: 39th (+16)