Gone: Ja’Wuan James, Zach Fulton, Alex Bullard, James Stone, Tiny Richardson
Returning: Marques Pair (RS Sr.), Jacob Gilliam (RS Sr.), Mack Crowder (RS Jr.), Kyler Kerbyson (RS Jr.), Dylan Wiesman (Soph.), Austin Sanders (RS Fr.), Brett Kendrick (RS Fr.)
Newcomers: Dontavius Blair (Jr.), Ray Raulerson (Fr.), Coleman Thomas (Fr.), (OL/DL) Jashon Robertson (Fr.)
Outlook: A year ago this unit returned over 100 career starts and was loaded with NFL prospects.
It was the strength of the team. Now, heading into 2014, it’s the biggest question with just six returning starts on the roster.
There’s some degree of optimism about the interior of the offensive line. Marcus Jackson, who redshirted in 2013 due to the depth and talent the Vols had, returns as the projected starter at left guard. He made five starts as a true freshman in 2011, so while he hasn’t seen game action in over a year, he at least has that experience.
Center Mack Crowder is emerging as a leader of this young group. He’s a bit undersized at 6-2, 295 pounds, but after three years in the weight room and seeing situational work in 2013, he should be up to the task. The same goes for Kyler Kerbyson, who projects to start at right guard after three years of waiting in the wings.
Finding tackles might be the biggest challenge for Butch Jones and offensive line coach Don Mahoney. Freshman Coleman Thomas worked as the starter on the right side in spring and is the odds-on favorite to win that spot. Thomas has massive upside and, physically, looks more like an upperclassman. And while his future is bright, it’s still somewhat of a scary scenario to have a true freshman, who actually played center in high school, manning that spot.
The left tackle spot looks to be a two-man race between former walk-on Jacob Gilliam and junior college transfer Dontavius Blair. Blair started the spring working with the first team, but Gilliam finished the spring on top of the depth chart.
The 6-8, 315-pound Blair has more upside and the coaches recruited him with the idea he would start. Look for him to get every opportunity to win the job once he learns more of the playbook, but Gilliam is a real threat for playing time.
Veteran Marques Pair and redshirt freshman Brett Kendrick both provide depth at tackle, but probably won’t be called upon unless there are injury issues.
Dylan Wiesman and Austin Sanders provide both versatility and depth. Wiesman can play center or guard and would be one of the first off the bench if needed. Sanders can play guard or tackle. True freshman Ray Raulerson can also play guard or center, though he’ll need to bulk up some more before being a major factor. True freshman Jashon Robertson could get a chance on offense as well, though he’s listed as an OL/DL entering camp.
Mack Crowder at SEC Media Days:
“This is an opportunity for us to go out there and prove that we can play. We’ve obviously been in the background the past couple years and we are all really looking forward to going out there and showing what we have. What I’m hoping to accomplish is going out there and getting the job done, helping my team any way I can.”
By the numbers:
• Jackson: (UT career) 24 games, 5 starts
• Crowder: (UT career) 10 games, 1 start
• Kerbyson: (UT career) 19 games
• Pair: (UT career) 6 games
• Wiesman: (UT career) 10 games
• Gilliam (UT career) 3 games
Projected initial depth chart:
From left to right the best guess for the opener is Blair, Jackson, Crowder, Kerbyson and Thomas. Gilliam will certainly have a chance to start at left tackle, though. The second line should look something like (from L to R) Gilliam, Wiesman, Raulerson, Sanders and Kendrick or Pair. Though, in reality, Wiesman is probably the top backup for all three interior spots.
Raulerson is really the only logical candidate at this point. Listed at 274 pounds, he needs some time in the weight room before he’s ready to be much of a factor.