Tennessee’s offensive line resembled a MASH unit last season. The Vols suffered numerous injuries and saw a transfer mid-season just from the offensive line alone. By the last month of the season, UT was starting four freshmen on the line because of the injuries and attrition.
Redshirt sophomore Ryan Johnson was one of those freshmen who was forced into a starting role. And he knows firsthand how important it is to be prepared and to have a well-rounded knowledge of the entire line.
Johnson started the Vols’ final four games and started at three different positions in those four games. He played right guard, left guard, and center down the stretch, and that gave him a wider base of knowledge heading into this upcoming season.
And according to Johnson, that kind of mentality is being preached to the entire offensive line unit.
“I think the key lesson there is to always be prepared,” Johnson said of the 2017 season during a media availability. “No matter who you are, you just always need to be prepared. That’s what Pruitt has been teaching us the whole time is to be prepared. If you’re playing guard, learn center and the other guard. If you’re playing tackle, learn guard, guard, and the other tackle. If you’re playing center, learn both guards.
“I think it’s really key to be diverse and understand what you’re doing and the whole scheme. I think that’s what our offensive line has been doing a great job of so far this year is learning the scheme as whole, so I think we’re going to be prepared for really anything that’s coming our way.”
During fall camp this year, Pruitt and offensive line coach Will Friend have been trying to build depth on the line and make sure they have the best starting five on the field once the season starts. They’ve been doing that by playing every lineman at different spots during drills and in situational moments. Some players have begun to solidify themselves at one spot more than others, but every UT lineman is being instructed to learn at least one other spot in case someone gets hurt and they need to slide into another position.
And that practice has helped the whole line learn the schemes better according to Johnson.
“Coach Pruitt has really been preaching on working different positions and knowing all the positions on the offensive line, and I think all the guys have been doing a really good job at being diverse,” Johnson stated. “I think that really helps us out. We really know the scheme rather than just one position.”
Johnson spoke about the increased physicality of the offensive line and how well the unit has bonded as a whole, and he’s also noticed how quickly Tennessee’s linemen have been picking up on the new schemes being implemented. Tennessee will be using a more pro-style offense with less zone blocking schemes and more “smash mouth football” type of plays.
Tennessee’s offensive success will be predicated on how well the offensive line performs, and Johnson is excited for what this new offense means for him and his fellow linemen.
“I think we’ve been picking up the new schemes and new steps very well as an offensive line, and we’re just trying to focus on blocking and doing our job,” Johnson explained. “As an offensive lineman, I just enjoy getting first downs, getting touchdowns. But I definitely love smash mouth football. I love getting dirty, getting aggressive, and putting people on their backs. Whatever it takes to get the job done.”
Versatility is the key for the Vols on the offensive line this year. Some players are still trying to find their best spot, but most have begun to settle in. Johnson has primarily been playing at guard this fall after playing a lot of center in the spring. New Alabama grad transfer Brandon Kennedy has taken over center duties now.
But Johnson doesn’t care what position he plays as long as he can be out on the field and in the trenches.
“Whatever gets me on the field,” Johnson said. “If you want me to take some snaps, I’ll take some snaps. But something tells me Pruitt probably wouldn’t want me taking snaps.”