Last year, Tennessee’s offensive line struggled with injuries, execution, and just about anything else that could plague an offensive line. The Vols were one of the worst O-lines in college football last season, especially when it came to blocking for the run.
This offseason has seen a drastic alteration to Tennessee’s offensive line unit thanks to new additions, weight room gains, and departures off the roster.
On the departure front, Tennessee has lost five linemen from their roster last season. Drew Richmond elected to use his final year of eligibility as a grad transfer and moved westward to USC. The other four — Chance Hall, Eric Crosby, Tanner Antonutti, and Devante Brooks — all had to medically retire due to various injury issues. Melvin McBride, one of Tennessee’s 2019 signees, had to medically retire over the summer before ever suiting up for the Vols.
But it wasn’t all bad news for UT’s offensive line this offseason.
The Vols welcomed in two five-star offensive tackle prospects in Wanya Morris (early enrollee) and Darnell Wright. Tennessee also added four-star guard Jackson Lampley and three-star lineman Chris Akporoghene to their roster from their 2019 class.
Add that to weight and strength gains made by Tennessee’s returning linemen, the recovery of center Brandon Kennedy, and the growing optimism that star lineman Trey Smith could be cleared to play, and head coach Jeremy Pruitt is looking forward to seeing what his unit can do this season.
Pruitt met with the media on Thursday to talk about his team prior to the start of fall camp on Friday. He was asked about Tennessee’s offensive line, and his answer caught a few ears.
“I’m excited for our 2019 offensive line,” Pruitt stated. “You look at these guys, and when they walk into a room, whether they’ve been here for a year, two years, three years, you can see how their bodies have changed in a positive way. We’ve got guys that have experience, that have played in a lot of games. We’ve got guys that, again, are new on the campus, and they’re looking for the opportunity to play. We have competition in the room. We have smart guys that demonstrated to me in the spring some physical toughness or some physicality.
“But if you look at the group all together, no, they’ve not played a lot together. (We) mixed a lot of different groups this spring, and I’m excited about the group and how they’re going to perform in this fall camp.”
Tennessee returns 69 career starts among eight of their returning offensive linemen in 2019, with Trey Smith (19) and Ryan Johnson (16) leading the way among the group. But as Pruitt stated, a lot of the players — both returning and new — haven’t played a lot together.
The Vols trotted out a number of different starting offensive lines last season, due in part to injuries. Brandon Kennedy started at center in the season opener, but he suffered a season-ending injury after that game. Smith started the first seven games but was held out the remainder of the season after blood clots in his lungs reappeared prior to the South Carolina game.
But this spring served as a time for Tennessee’s returning linemen — and two newcomers in Morris and Akporoghene — to compete against each other, work on improving, and close the 2018 chapter of their UT careers.
Pruitt isn’t the only one who is optimistic about what UT’s O-line unit can do this upcoming season after what he’s seen this offseason, though.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney also spoke with the media on Thursday, and he shared Pruitt’s sentiments about Tennessee’s embattled offensive line.
“I thought they competed very hard,” Chaney said of what he saw from the offensive line in the spring. “I think that we gotta continue to be more fundamentally sound up front. I think (offensive line coach Will Friend) has done a really good job of that and putting some new pieces in there with some of these new kids coming in. It’s going to be fun to watch the competition there and see how that unfolds.
“But I’m very optimistic about those kids. I think they’re hungry. I think they realize they need to play better, and I think they will, so I’m excited about it.”
It would be difficult for Tennessee’s offensive line to perform any worse than they did in 2018. The Vols’ line had the worst “stuff rate” among all 130 FBS schools last season, allowing 32.6 percent of UT’s rushing plays to result in no gain or a loss.
Tennessee ranked 127th in both “line yards per carry” and “standard downs line yards per carry” last season as well. The first term measures how much an offensive line is actually credited for helping a rushing attack and how much is on a running back’s ability to create plays. The offensive line gets full credit for runs between 0-3 yards, 50 percent credit for yards 4-8, and no credit for any run that goes over eight yards. Lost yardage counts 125 percent towards the offensive line.
When you factor all that in, the Vols’ offensive line ended up with just 1.97 line yards per carry. Only Akron, San Jose State, and Florida State had worse line yards per carry in 2018.
But Pruitt isn’t dwelling on the past, and that goes for his entire team, not just the offensive line. He and his players are ready to move on and focus on 2019.
“I’m not worried about last year. That book closed in November,” Pruitt stated. “We’re worried about the 2019 version. We’re going to start writing that tomorrow and today as we report for camp.
“I know that our guys have a lot of goals and expectations. We’ll see how it plays out over the next six months”