2019 Fall Camp Position Preview: Offensive Line

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    Photo by Nathanael Rutherford/RTI

    We get you ready for the start of Tennessee’s 2019 fall camp by previewing the Vols’ roster position-by-position. Make sure to check out our look at Tennessee’s defensive line. Next up is our look at Tennessee’s offensive line.

    Seniors: Brandon Kennedy (RS)

    Juniors: Jahmir Johnson (RS), Ryan Johnson (RS), Riley Locklear, Nathan Niehaus (RS), Trey Smith, Marcus Tatum (RS)

    Sophomores: K’Rojhn Calbert (RS), Jerome Carvin

    Freshmen: Chris Akporoghene, Ollie Lane (RS), Jackson Lampley, Wanya Morris, Darnell Wright

    Tennessee’s success (or failure) on offense in 2019 will depend the most on what the offensive line can do and how much they can improve from last season.

    Last season, the Vols’ offensive line was among the worst, if the not the worst, in college football. Tennessee’s O-line struggled in every facet of the game, but they were particularly bad at run blocking. The Vols’ offensive line ranked dead last in “stuff rate” among the 130 teams in the FBS last season with a 32.6 percent mark. That means Tennessee’s running backs were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage 32.6 percent of the time.

    Essentially one-third of the time Tennessee ran the ball last season, it went for no gain or resulted in a loss.

    The O-line did a better job of protecting Jarrett Guarantano and Keller Chryst at quarterback than they did blocking for running backs, but not by much. Guarantano was sacked on 8.2 percent of his dropbacks last season, which ranked 106th among FBS quarterbacks. He attempted 39 percent of his throws while under pressure, which ranked 119th in the FBS.

    So, how does Tennessee fix those issues in one year? By improving the strength of the returning offensive linemen and bringing in high-profile recruits.

    Since the 2018 season ended, the Vols have seen a rash of medical retirements from their offensive line group. Chance Hall, Devante Brooks, Tanner Antonutti, and Eric Crosby all had to cut their careers short due to various medical and injury issues. Incoming offensive lineman Melvin McBride also had to retire before he even had a chance to officially don a UT jersey.

    While the Vols’ overall numbers in the offensive line room took a hit, the talent got an upgrade.

    Five-star Wanya Morris was with the team in the spring and participated in spring practices, and Tennessee welcomed in another five-star in Darnell Wright and a four-star interior lineman in Jackson Lampley over the summer. Morris and Wright in particular are expected to play huge roles on the offensive line this year, and both are going to compete for a starting role at both tackle positions this fall.

    But what about the returning linemen on UT’s roster?

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    According to Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee now has 15 offensive linemen who weigh in at 300 pounds or more when the Vols barely had two or three who tipped the scales at that mark a year. It’s clear the Vols have gotten bigger and stronger along the offensive line, but does that mean they’re better players?

    In a unit full of questions, the two biggest ones facing the Vols’ offensive line revolve around Trey Smith and Brandon Kennedy. Smith’s ongoing health issues have been a major talking point for Tennessee football for over a year. He missed all of spring practice last year due to blood clots in his lungs, but he was cleared to practice for fall camp. He started at left tackle to begin the season, but the week of the South Carolina game brought bad news: His blood clots had resurfaced, and he was going to have to sit the rest of the season.

    Smith again was held out of most of the drills in the spring this year, but there’s a growing sense of optimism that he can play this upcoming season. The former Freshman All-American would instantly be the most talented lineman on the field for Tennessee, but his health concerns will be a major focus and concern at the start of fall camp.

    Smith’s health outside of football is the No. 1 priority in this situation. But if he can contribute in any way this season, that’s a major plus for the Vols in a multitude of ways.

    As for Brandon Kennedy, he also faces health questions.

    Kennedy was Tennessee’s starting center for their season opener against West Virginia, but Kennedy suffered a season-ending leg injury the following week of practice. Head coach Jeremy Pruitt said Kennedy could’ve participated in spring practices earlier this year, but he and UT’s coaches elected to hold him out to make sure he was fully recovered for the fall.

    The redshirt senior enters fall camp as the favorite to start at center again for Tennessee, but how much did his injury affect his movement and what he can do? He’ll have some competition as the Vols’ center, but it’s clearly his job to lose.

    Aside from Smith — who has started 19 games in his UT career — the Vols’ most experienced returning offensive lineman is redshirt junior Ryan Johnson. As a redshirt sophomore last season, Johnson started all 12 games for Tennessee and has started 16-straight contests overall. He took over at center for Kennedy after the first game of the season, but his more natural position is at one of the guard spots.

    Johnson will have competition from Jahmir Johnson, who started 11 games at left guard last season, Riley Locklear, who started two games at right guard as a freshman in 2017 and played in six games at guard as a sophomore last season, Nathan Niehaus, who started six games at right guard last season and also played some tackle, and Jerome Carvin, who played in all 12 games as a true freshman last year and made six combined starts at both guard positions.

    If Trey Smith is healthy and ready to go, he’ll likely man a guard spot rather than tackle. That adds another layer of intrigue to UT’s interior of the offensive line. Redshirt freshman Ollie Lane and redshirt sophomore K’Rojhn Calbert are also options at guard. Incoming freshman Jackson Lampley could play either guard or center.

    At the two tackle spots, both the aforementioned true freshmen — Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright — are the favorites to start heading into fall camp. But they won’t have the starting jobs handed to them.

    Redshirt junior Marcus Tatum — who is finally up to a good weight of 316 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame — played in all 12 games last season as a redshirt sophomore and made five starts at left tackle. He started three games at right tackle as a sophomore in 2017. He, Nathan Niehaus, and freshman Chris Akporoghene will be the primary competition for Morris and Wright at tackle. Don’t discount the possibility of Jahmir Johnson moving to tackle, either.

    Tennessee’s offensive line has a lot to figure out in fall camp, and they have a lot of versatility within the unit as well. But injuries and health concerns are one of the biggest storylines with the O-line entering camp, and essentially all five starting spots are up for grabs.

    Fall camp is important for every player and every unit, but it might be the most important for the offensive line this year for the Vols. Aside from the defensive line, this unit faces the most pressure to perform and improve in 2019.