Things can change drastically in just a few short years. That’s never more apparent than how Tennessee’s offensive line is viewed heading into the 2020 season.
Back in 2017 and 2018, Tennessee had some of the worst offensive line play in the entire FBS. The Vols’ offensive line in both seasons was ravaged by injuries and inconsistent play, and that led to dozens of sacks and nearly two hundred tackles for loss given up in that span.
But heading into the 2020 season, Tennessee’s offensive line is being predicted as one of the best in the entire SEC.
Cole Cubelic, an analyst for ESPN and SEC Network and a former offensive lineman for Auburn, released his list of the SEC’s top five offensive lines for the upcoming 2020 season, and the Vols checked in at No. 2 overall and tops in the SEC East. Only Alabama ranked ahead of Tennessee in Cubelic’s rankings.
MY top 5 SEC OL’s for 2020: pic.twitter.com/LnnEGWaJqZ
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) June 5, 2020
Cubelic has been high on Tennessee’s potential along the offensive line all offseason, thanks, in part, to the return of All-SEC lineman Trey Smith for his senior season. Tennessee also returns starting center Brandon Kennedy, and both Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright — two former five-star prospects — have another year under their belts after starting and playing extensively as freshmen last season.
Not only that, but the Vols welcome in Georgia transfer Cade Mays to the OL room. Cubelic’s rankings likely take into account Mays becoming immediately eligible for this upcoming season, but that hasn’t been decided by the NCAA yet.
Following Tennessee are three other teams in the East: Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida.
Last season, the Vols took steps forward along the offensive line, especially as the season went on. Tennessee went from allowing 92 tackles for loss and 23 sacks in 12 games in 2018 to 69 tackles for loss and 21 sacks in 13 games in 2019. Along with that, the Vols’ rushing attack went from averaging just 3.7 yards a carry in 2018 to 4.1 yards an attempt in 2019.
Those are modest improvements, but Tennessee’s offensive line went from undeniably the biggest weakness on the offensive side of the ball in 2017 and 2018 to actually proving to be an asset over the last month-plus of the season in 2019.
Tennessee not only welcomes back all their starters along the line from last season, but they should actually have some depth in the trenches, too.
The Vols return a combined 97 starts along the offensive line for the 2020 season — and that doesn’t include Cade Mays, who started at multiple positions along the line for Georgia. Those 97 starts are spread among eight different linemen, and Mays gives Tennessee a ninth lineman with starting experience.
The last time Tennessee had a truly stout offensive line was in 2015, and the Vols totaled nearly 3,000 rushing yards as a team that season and scored 32 rushing touchdowns, the most since the 1990 UT team totaled 33 rushing scores.
If Tennessee’s 2020 offensive line can perform anywhere close to that level of efficiency and can keep UT’s quarterback upright, the Vols’ offense has a chance to explode in 2020.