Can the Offensive Line Take a Major Step Forward?
It was no secret which unit was the biggest weakness on Tennessee’s team last year. The Vols’ offensive line was among the worst in the entire FBS. In fact, they might’ve actually been the worst offensive line in all of Division I.
That can’t be true again this season if Tennessee wants to reach their goals or overachieve. In fact, the O-line needs to show significant improvement if the Vols want to be better than even 6-6 by season’s end.
Getting Trey Smith back, as previously mentioned, would go a long way in helping the offensive line improve. But the line is more than just one player, and it’s going to take several linemen making progress in 2019 for UT’s offensive line not to be a major weakness this season.
Brandon Kennedy was expected to be Tennessee’s anchor in the middle of the line last year. After a lackluster first start at center against West Virginia, Kennedy suffered a season-ending injury at practice the following week. He was held out of spring practice this year, though Jeremy Pruitt said during SEC Media Days that Kennedy could’ve played and practiced in the spring if they had really needed him to.
Does Kennedy nail down the starting center position? Is he as good as fans hoped he’d be when he joined as a graduate transfer from Alabama last season?
The Vols have some good, healthy competition along the interior of the line flanking Kennedy on both sides. If Smith is good to go, he’ll likely start at guard. But Ryan Johnson, Jahmir Johnson, K’Rojhn Calbert, and Jerome Carvin are all strong options at guard as well, and don’t count out Nathan Niehaus or Riley Locklear, either.
At tackle, however, there’s far less certainty.
There’s a good chance that Tennessee ends up starting two true freshmen at both tackle spots sometime this season. In fact, that could happen as early as the first game of the season. Former five-star Wanya Morris joined the Vols as an early enrollee in the spring, and five-star Darnell Wright arrived on campus in the summer. Both are expected to at least be in the rotation at both right and left tackle, but both are gunning for starting spots as well.
The two true freshmen won’t just be handed starting jobs, though.
Redshirt junior Marcus Tatum is finally up to a good weight on his 6-foot-6 frame. He joined Tennessee at just 265 pounds in 2016, but he’s now up to 320 pounds and is hungry to prove himself after being counted on in both 2017 and 2018.
The aforementioned Jahmir Johnson is also likely to get some run at tackle, and he could fill in until one of the freshmen is ready. Or he could just flat out win the starting spot himself. Nathan Niehaus has also played at tackle in his UT career.
Tennessee’s offensive line has a ton of questions heading into fall camp, and they need to answer as many of them as they can by the time August 31st rolls around.