Juniors: Drew Richmond, Brandon Kennedy, Chance Hall
Sophomores: Riley Locklear, Nathan Niehaus, Marcus Tatum, Ryan Johnson, Jahmir Johnson, Trey Smith, Devante Brooks
Freshmen: Tanner Antonutti, K’Rojhn Calbert, Jerome Carvin, Ollie Lane, Eric Crosby
Our fall camp position preview series continues. Our previous installment looked at Tennessee’s defensive line. Now we take a look at the Vols’ offensive line prior to the 2018 season.
Aside from the quarterback battle, the Vols’ offensive line might be the biggest storyline heading into fall camp. Tennessee’s offensive line was besieged by injuries and poor coaching last season, and it showed. The Vols finished tied with Arkansas for the third-most sacks allowed in the SEC and gave up the second-most tackles for loss in the conference last season.
The lone bright spot last year on Tennessee’s offensive line was freshman phenom Trey Smith. But he missed all of spring this year due to an unspecified health concern, and his ability to play came into question.
But Smith is expected to be ready for the start of fall camp, and he brings a much-needed edge to a unit with tons of question marks.
Tennessee is short on veteran leadership and overall experience on the offensive line heading into 2018. Smith actually has some of the most experience on the roster despite only being a sophomore. He returns the third-most starts among Tennessee’s offensive linemen, with only Drew Richmond and Chance Hall having more than him with 13 starts apiece.
What the Vols lack in experience on the offensive line they make up for in potential. And it will be the job of new offensive line coach Will Friend to get the most out of this fairly young unit.
As long as Smith is healthy, he should be counted on as an All-SEC performer for the Vols regardless of if he’s at tackle or guard. But the rest of the offensive line is full of more unknowns than certainties. Drew Richmond has played at tackle for his whole Vol career, but many believe he would be a better fit at guard given his skill set. If the Vols feel comfortable with other players at tackle, then maybe Richmond will finally get to move inside. But he may be needed to man the left or right tackle position.
Chance Hall is the only other lineman besides Richmond and Smith who returns with double-digit career starts. But Hall’s performance this year will be based on how he recovers from yet another injury. He’s been bugged by various ailments during his time at Tennessee, and he missed all of last season and the spring due to injury and recovery. If he’s fully healthy, he should be able to be a significant contributor. But how badly have injuries affected his play?
Alabama grad transfer Brandon Kennedy brings a lot of upside but a lot of mystery to this unit. He never started a game for the Tide in his three seasons there, and he only made a handful of appearances as a reserve. He’s dealt with his own injury issues in his collegiate career, but three years in Alabama’s strength and conditioning program is a huge plus for him. If he can prove he’s healthy and can play well, expect him to start at either center or guard.
Marcus Tatum is the next-most experienced Vol lineman behind Richmond, Hall, and Smith. He was undersized for his first two years at Tennessee, but he’s finally put on a good amount of weight and looks the part finally. But can he play up to his potential? Or will someone like Jahmir Johnson overtake him?
Speaking of Johnson, he comes in as a JUCO transfer in the Vols’ 2018 signing class. He brings a lot of athleticism and size to Tennessee’s offensive line unit, and he’ll be the biggest wildcard aside from Brandon Kennedy. Will he be SEC ready by the start of the season? Or will he need more seasoning before he’s ready to start? If he’s able to assert himself in fall camp, he could steal a starting spot from someone.
Ryan Johnson was the Vols’ projected starting center until UT landed Kennedy. Now he could end up being the odd man out of Tennessee’s starting five. He could also slide over and play one of the guard positions if Kennedy takes the starting center job. He played both right and left guard last year along with center as a redshirt freshman, and he looked fairly solid considering the circumstances. He has good size and should be able to compete at a number of positions.
Riley Locklear will be interesting to watch. He made a handful of starts for the Vols down the stretch last season, but by all accounts he won’t be starting for Tennessee in 2018 unless several injuries happen. He has a good frame and should be able to provide some good support, but will he be able to beat out others at guard? That remains to be seen.
Nathan Niehaus still needs to put on more weight and improve his strength, and Devante Brooks is still learning the position after transitioning from tight end last year. Brooks did make four starts last season, but ideally he should be a reserve for the Vols this season.
Jerome Carvin impressed as an early enrollee this spring, and he might be able to find a spot in the two-deep as a true freshman. He’s very strong for his age and has trimmed down to a much more manageable 305 pounds. If he continues to build off his strong spring, he could become a solid backup or maybe even find his way into the starting five during the season.
Eric Crosby has converted from the defensive line and probably still needs to trim down a little bit before he can be counted on to be a major contributor, but there’s definitely a decent amount of upside there. K’Rojhn Calbert could be a name to watch. If he can stay healthy, he could develop into a strong contributor down the line. He shouldn’t be counted on much in 2018, but he has some great size and mobility. He’s just been plagued by injuries late in high school and last year in his first season with Tennessee.
In an ideal world, both Tanner Antonutti and Ollie Lane would redshirt in 2018. And barring another injury-riddled year for the offensive line like last year, these two should be able to use this season as a developmental year in their first year on campus.
The Vols probably only have two players who are guaranteed starters on the offensive line right now, and that’s Trey Smith and Drew Richmond. Those two will start somewhere along the line as long as they’re healthy. The other three starting spots are completely up for grabs, though.
There’s reason to have hope and optimism for the Vols’ offensive line in 2018. Friend has a proven track record as a great offensive line coach, and there’s a good amount of talent on UT’s line. But a lot of the Vols’ linemen have dealt with injuries or haven’t lived up to expectations so far, and that gives plenty of reason to have skepticism around this unit too.
Tennessee’s offense will be a success or failure depending on what the offensive line does. And Jeremy Pruitt can’t afford for a repeat of last year’s offensive line performance if he wants to have a successful first season as head coach.