RTI contributor Adam McCracken is the author of this article
With kickoff in Knoxville nearing, positions are being solidified leading up to the 2019 Tennessee football season. One position group that is sure to have its fair share of shuffling throughout the season — and maybe even some before next Saturday’s season opener — is the offensive line.
For the first time in 23 seasons, Tennessee is returning its leading passer, rusher, and receiver from the previous year. While consistency is definitely preached by head coach Jeremy Pruitt, it will be the offensive line that will need to demonstrate it the most.
Offensive line coach Will Friend has been shuffling players around all off-season long, and there is sure to be more, especially over the next couple of weeks. Pruitt announced after fall camp that Tennessee could play “eight to ten guys” up front on offense. Brandon Kennedy, the redshirt senior who sat out almost all of last year with an injury, seems to be the only sure starter, starting out at center for the Volunteers. If everything health-wise works out, Trey Smith will no doubt lock up the left guard spot. Marcus Tatum seems to be trending towards a start at one of the two tackle spots, but things could change before the match-up vs. Georgia State. The right guard position and the other offensive tackle position are the two most likely to experience the most change.
At guard, there are as many as six guys who could see substantial minutes there. The favorites would have to be both Ryan and Jahmir Johnson, who both have load of experience at the guard positions. If Trey Smith is not cleared by doctors to play, it would seem both of them will fill the two starting guard positions. As far as depth goes at guard, Riley Locklear started started a few games and played pretty well until an injury forced him out for the year. He has been limited in camps this offseason, but K’Rojhn Calbert has filled in very well and could enter the conversation for reps early. Jerome Carvin flashed some moments of hope as a true freshman starter last season.
As far as the tackle position, Tennessee is not worried about their future there at all, bringing in two highly-touted freshmen in Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris. Both have shown their raw ability, and Morris practiced a lot this spring with the first team as an early enrollee. It will not be a surprise if both play major roles early, eventually leading to both starting this year.
Offensive line coach Will Friend has praised his group for their approach, and he thinks the unit as a whole is performing better than last year.
“We’re playing better,” Friend said during a media availability last week. “We’re still nowhere where we want to be and still day-to-day looking for more consistency, but we’re better than we were a year ago.”
Friend’s comments are welcome for Vol fans after a season where the offensive line struggled mightily. Tennessee’s running backs were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage 32.6 percent of the time and ranked 127th in “line yards per carry.” Pass blocking wasn’t much better, as Jarrett Guarantano was consistently pressured and took major hits time and time again.
New offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has spent a lot of time with the offensive line. Some fans have questioned why Chaney has spent so much time with the O-line when Friend is being paid $800,000 to man the group, but Friend has welcomed the added eyes. He likens it to being parents raising a large group of children.
“When you have five guys going in a drill, it’s harder to see everyone,” Friend explained. “When you split it up, you can each take two or three guys. It’s how my wife is in the summer with three kids. With one it was easy, with two it wasn’t so bad, and when it became three, it became a bit harder, and you need a bit more help sometimes.
“We two spot so many different things, so a lot of times you got my GAs on one field and I’m on the other field. When you can half up the group, you can really center around what you’re trying to improve on.”
The Vols’ offensive line group needed all the help they could get after an abysmal 2018 season. With the addition of some talented freshmen, gains in the weight room, and the added eyes and knowledge of Jim Chaney, Will Friend has quite a bit more to work with in his second year in Knoxville.
Tennessee will hope that the added bodies, coaches, and especially the current heath will lead to an improved and consistent positional group in 2019.