Among the many complaints Vol fans had about Butch Jones, one of the biggest was Tennessee’s lack of overall physicality during his time as UT’s head coach. Both the Vols’ offensive and defensive lines were often criticized by fans, media, and former players alike for their inability to play aggressive and be dominant at the point of attack.
One of the things Vol fans hope to see under new head coach Jeremy Pruitt is a return to a more physical, gritty style of play on both sides of the ball. And according to one of the Vols’ offensive linemen, that mentality is starting to become evident on UT’s offensive line.
Ryan Johnson is a redshirt sophomore who was forced into a starting role last season as Tennessee dealt with a number of injuries on the offensive line. Johnson played in all 12 games as a redshirt freshman and started the Vols’ final four games of the season at three different positions (both guard spots and center). He knows what the mentality was like last year at UT, and he can compare that to this year’s team.
Right now, the Vols’ offensive line is looking like a much more physical force than they were last year.
“We’ve really come together as a unit and really bonded, and we’re really starting to become a tough and physical offensive line,” Johnson said in a media availability. “I think we’re going to be a really physical team. We’ve really stepped up our physicality, our toughness. I think we’ve done that all as a group, not just one individual player.
“I think the offensive line has really been focusing hard on getting stronger, faster, and quicker out of our stance and just more aggressive as a whole. We’ve also been focusing on finishing our blocks, just being tough individuals.”
In a season full of disappointments, the Vols’ offensive line was one of the biggest letdowns in 2017. Tennessee’s offensive line allowed the third-most sacks (35) and second-most tackles for loss (89) in the SEC last season. Poor offensive line play and a multitude of injuries in the unit were a large reason why Tennessee had the worst offense in the conference and one of the worst offenses in all of college football last season.
But physicality has been one of the top priorities for the unit this fall. And they have a lot more players to work with now than they did last year.
Tennessee welcomes in a few new faces to the offensive line group this year who weren’t on the roster last season. Chief among those is Alabama grad transfer Brandon Kennedy, but he isn’t the only one. Junior college transfer Jahmir Johnson is also in the fold, and true freshmen Jerome Carvin, Ollie Lane, and Tanner Antonutti help round out the group of newcomers.
According to Johnson, all the new faces have meshed well with Tennessee’s returning players. And right now, the Vols’ offensive line unit is starting to really gel.
“We’ve really bonded as a unit, and that’s on the field and off the field,” Johnson explained. “We’re hanging out together off the field, and that’s really important because the offensive line is really a different unit compared to all the other positions because we have to know how each other thinks. To do that, you have to know everybody inside and out, and you have to know what they’re thinking right before that play. And I think we’ve done a very good job of that and have really started to bond as a unit.
“Now, we’ve still got a long ways to go. We still need to work and still need to get tougher, need to get stronger. We’ve got things to learn, but I really think we’re progressing.”
The Vols’ new line will have plenty of tests to see how much they’ve improved in the first half of the season. Tennessee opens the year against a Power Five opponent in West Virginia then opens up their SEC slate with contests against Florida, Georgia, Auburn, and Alabama.
Vol fans are excited to see Tennessee’s new offense and their return to more of an SEC-style construction. And if Johnson’s words are true, then Vol fans should be much happier with the results at the line of scrimmage on offense too.