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Vols Aren’t “Anywhere Close” to Figuring Out Starting Five on O-Line

Photo by Nathanael Rutherford/RTI

RTI contributor Murphy Carlton is the author of this article 

Everyone knows that in order to win football games in the SEC, you have to dominate in the trenches on both sides of the ball. If you can’t control the line of scrimmage, you’re going to have a very hard time moving the ball on offense and stopping the other team from scoring on defense.

For Tennessee last season, the offensive line in particular was too inconsistent when they needed to control the line of scrimmage to either close out games or help get the momentum back to spark a comeback. Too often, the push needed to open up a hole for a running back just wasn’t there, and the time needed for UT’s quarterbacks to get off a clean throw was often minimal.

To add to the seemingly never-ending attrition of offensive linemen recruited by Tennessee’s former head coach, redshirt junior Nathan Niehaus announced this past week that he would be retiring from football due to reoccurring injuries. Niehaus was mentioned by Pruitt earlier in the off-season as being someone that stood out in spring practice.

Now, he won’t be able to help out with Tennessee’s O-line this season.

Even with this news, the 2019 season is still shaping up to be a solid season for the big men up front thanks to a strong offseason.

With Brandon Kennedy returning after tearing his ACL last season, Trey Smith looking like he could suit up in 2019 after missing significant time dealing with blood clots in his lungs, and the additions of five-star recruits Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris, the offensive line has the potential to be much improved in 2019.

The big question is who will be the starting five when the Vols host Georgia State on August 31st to open the 2019 season?

Head coach Jeremy Pruitt was asked about how his O-line will shape up and if he and the other coaches have found a combination of players they think will be the starting five so far in fall camp.

As of now, Pruitt hasn’t discovered which five will start. But the rotation has been narrowed down some.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere close to finding the first group of five,” Pruitt said. “I think we’ve got an idea of who the 10 or 11 guys there that we’re working. We’ve worked several combinations, and it’s been good for the group. We’ve had several guys that have put a couple of good practices together, but we’re looking for consistency with the entire group, so we’ve got good competition there.”

The start of the season is only three weeks away, but the fact that the starting five has not been decided is nothing to freak out about.

The five guys that line up when the Vols get the ball for the first time this year will undoubtedly not be the only five linemen who play this season. Multiple combinations of players will be used throughout the long season, so the starting group at the beginning of the season is pretty much irrelevant as the season progresses.

One of the players who figures to be featured heavily in the rotation is Jahmir Johnson. Last season, the JUCO transfer played in all but one of Tennessee’s 12 games and started each game he played in.

Though undersized, Johnson was a key part of UT’s line last season, and he likely will be again this year. He played primarily at guard, but he’s been practicing a lot at tackle this fall.

Pruitt was asked specifically about Johnson and the different positions that he’s been practicing at.

“You know, we’ve played him at left tackle, we’ve played him at left guard,” Pruitt responded. “We’ve done that with Wanya (Morris), we’ve moved the guys around a lot. There’s nothing to that.”

I personally think it’s good to move guys around to create versatility and extra depth in case of injury. The more positions a player can play, the more opportunity he has to help the team whenever called upon.

At the end of the day, the players who have good practices will play. Pruitt showed last year that he values how a player practices. If a player doesn’t have a good week of practice and someone else does, they will be playing instead.

The five players who are the most consistent in the weeks of practice leading up to the first game will more than likely be the first five guys to line up for the Vols.

Tennessee’s scrimmage on Sunday will be a test to see which combination of players is going to be the one that the coaches feel most confident in. But the Vols are likely a while away from figuring out who the best five will be.

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