But the discussion of who the starting five should be going forward has changed drastically after just one week. Arguably the best performance of the season has shifted the discussion from finding just five linemen to play to finding the best five out of a group of about seven that have seen significant playing time over the past few weeks.
Like the quarterback situation, Jones has been hesitant to make any proclamation on starters this week for the offensive line.
“I think you know the answer, whoever is the best five and who has the best week of preparation in practice, then the overall health,” Jones said of how he will determine who starts. “Even though Coleman Thomas is back we are going to be playing a very strong and physical defensive front in South Carolina. So again, is he 75 percent back, is he 100 percent back?
“A lot of that is all relative to where they are at health-wise. Same thing with Marcus (Jackson). But it does help that we have had some individuals gain some live game opportunities in moving forward, but again, nowhere where we need to be, a complete work in progress.”
Thomas and Jackson missed last week’s game against Alabama, but despite missing that pair of starters, the offensive line, which consisted of Brett Kendrick, Kyler Kerbyson, Mack Crowder, Jashon Robertson and Jacob Gilliam, played at a high level against one of the best defenses in the nation. The Vols rushed for 181 yards against a Tide defense that gave up an average of 64 yards per game. Tennessee also tied a season-low of two sacks conceded after giving up a total of 12 the previous two weeks combined. Having Josh Dobbs, a running threat, at quarterback certainly helped, but you can’t ignore the work that the five in the game did against the Tide.
That makes for some tough decisions for Jones. Jackson is UT’s most experienced offensive lineman and Thomas had been a regular starter prior to his injury. One advantage of the Alabama starting lineup was that Kendrick starting at left tackle allowed Kerbyson to slide down to guard, a position the coaching staff thinks he’s a better fit at.
“We have to put the best five on the field,” Jones reiterated. “In Kyler’s defense, he has probably played out of position all year. I think that is no secret. But that is where we are at. The big thing is getting Marcus Jackson back this week. which we fully anticipate getting him back. That gives us a little flexibility with Kyler. Coleman Thomas is ahead of schedule. There is a possibility that he may be ready for the game. So if we can get both of those individuals back that would help immensely. But for us, it is just putting the best five on the field and an opportunity to win the game.”
The Vols have options, which is a stark contrast from just a couple weeks ago. And facing a South Carolina defense that is near the bottom of the SEC in virtually every category, the offensive line will have another opportunity to take a step forward, especially after gaining confidence last week.
“Moving the ball against the defenses we’ve played in the past, obviously that gives us a lot of confidence just going forward because that’s great competition, and we play great competition across the SEC,” said Gilliam. “But being able to move the ball against that front that was, coming into the game, pretty highly touted, it’s a confidence boost for us O-Line guys.”