That was never more evident than on Saturday when the Vols gave up six sacks, couldn’t get anything going in the run game and essentially stalled their entire offense because of the lack of protection and push from the group up front. Opponents have sacked Tennessee’s quarterbacks 18 times this year with over half the season remaining. The Vols only gave up 15 in all of 2013.
Time for wholesale changes? Butch Jones said no during his press conference Monday afternoon.
“It is what it is,” Jones said when asked about lineup changes. “Those are the five that we have. Those are the five we feel gives us the best opportunity on Saturdays, and we’re sticking with those five. It’s on those other individuals at the offensive line to continue to work themselves to be in that conversation through the week of preparation throughout the course of the week. We’re down two full recruiting classes in the offensive line. That’s just the reality of where we’re at in our football program.”
A feistier-than-normal Jones questioned the reporter on who they would put in when asked about potential changes. Tennessee does have options. Just not ones that Jones is comfortable at this point, however. Junior college transfer Dontavius Blair remains in line for a redshirt after not seeing the field thus far. Redshirt freshman tackle Brett Kendrick was pulled from the lineup after one start against Arkansas State. Austin Sanders has yet to see significant snaps. A redshirt is in the works for Ray Raulerson as well.
And then there’s guard/center Dylan Wiesman, who the staff was high on in 2013 as a true freshman, but who also hasn’t seen any significant snaps this season.
“[Wiesman] continues to progress,” Jones said. “He went into the Florida game and he had a banged up shoulder from practice, so he was really kind of unavailable.”
Tennessee’s inexperienced line has been years in the making. Four seniors – all of whom received at least some form of NFL opportunity – departed the program after last season. Tackle Tiny Richardson, who went undrafted and is now on the Vikings injured reserve, made it a complete exodus when he declared for the NFL draft early.
Derek Dooley signed zero offensive linemen in the 2012 class. The 2013 offensive line class was ravaged when Dooley left – leaving Jones just a couple pieces to work with. That’s forced players such as Coleman Thomas and Jashon Robertson into the fire quicker than the coaches would like. But that’s reality for the Vols at this point.
“Name me another school in the country that’s starting two true freshmen in the offensive line,” Jones said. “They’re developmental positions. To really have successful programs, players start in your program three years into it at the offensive line. There’s so much that goes into it. The volume of communication, the physicality, the technique and the mental toughness.”
Redshirt senior Jacob Gilliam is expected to return in some capacity as soon as this weekend, though he’ll be a huge wild card as to how much he can do on a torn ACL at this point. So Tennessee will trudge on with this starting five for the time being. Jones said they will continue to utilize an H-back at times, but there will be no sweeping changes in how the Vols protect. That group must simply continue to develop. Tennessee has no choice.