Blevins: Careful what you wish for

Stay glued to InsideTennessee for all the latest Tennessee football coverage. Scroll down to read a column from Riley Blevins on why the offensive line will be missed so much.

Ja'Wuan James stood in a room tucked in a dark corner of Commonwealth Stadium, still trying to process that he'd just played his last game as a Tennessee Vol.

"I can't believe it," he said.

With his gaze staring blankly forward, James rattled off a list of things he'd miss – the Vol Walk, running through the "T," Rocky Top.

"I'm going to miss everything about the University of Tennessee, really," he added for good measure. "I'm going to miss it all."

I have a feeling the fan base will miss James and the rest of the offensive line nearly as much as the NFL-bound tackle will miss playing in front of 102,455 on the banks of the Tennessee River on Saturdays.

The offensive line was on the receiving end of much criticism this season.

It'll be a case of you don't know what you have till it's gone.

A group that holstered possibly five Sunday players and four-year starters will be replaced by an unproven JUCO transfer here and a still budding sophomore there in "Team 118."

That's when the real criticism will ensue.

To some level, I understand the displeasure.

It's only expected when you're labeled the "best offensive line in the country" by coach Butch Jones nearly as much as he says, "it's a process." That's a hard billing to live up to.

But how much of the criticism is deserved?

Hardly any, I'd argue, when you consider the season that was.

The Vols finished the year with more than 2,200 rushing yards, the most since 2004.

Then there's Rajion Neal, who eclipse the 1,000-yard mark on the second play of a 27-14 win over Kentucky to become the first running back to do so since Montario Hardesty in 2009.

And even less criticism is deserved when you dig deeper, beyond the stat book.

"Sure, we had our tough times," James said. "But I think overall we did some really good things here."

He did. They did.

And the cards weren't exactly stacked in their favor.

Justin Worley quarterbacked a Tennessee up-tempo, zone read-based attack for the season's first eight games.

Worley isn't exactly the most fleet of foot, that much is known. The scramble-allergic junior averaged 2.9 yards per rush on just 19 attempts.

You think defenses respected Worley's running ability? I laugh just posing the question.

On top of it all, Worley struggled passing, averaging 150 yards and one interception per game.

You don't have to be Monte Kiffin to know loading the box against the Vols would behoove you.

The forced injection of Joshua Dobbs didn't help the passing struggles, either.

If anything, it was just another reason to roll a safety or two down.

I could go on and on and on.

The hurry up, zone-blocking scheme didn't play to the offensive line's strength. That's built around speed, which isn't exactly fitting for a team Jones says "needs to add speed" after every single game.

The offensive line did the best with what it had.

"They mean so much to our football program," Jones said of the offensive line. "We've struggled with big plays all year which doesn't help them. I think they've done a great job."

But beyond the talent, offensive situation and stats, the group will be missed for its leadership.

"It's like being in a room full of coaches," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said in August of his group. "They all critique, coach and help each other out when we watch film."

That "help" leaked well out of the film room.

The offensive line had Worley's back amongst his struggles and gave Dobbs confidence when he was thrown in the fire.

"I told him, you have nothing to worry about," James said when Dobbs was named starter. "We have your back, you're the guy now."

Their Tennessee playing tenure may be over, but luckily for fans and young Vols, the group's leading is not.

"I'm going to work out with them just to set the tone for the future and young guys during the offseason," James said. "I heard we have 15 guys coming in January. Good things are ahead."

Those four foundation-pavers ended on a deserving note Saturday in Lexington.

The group fronted a 218 yard rushing attack, pushing defenders to the side like a few inches of snow being shoved to the curb by a plow.

That's how they should be remembered. Not for a sack Antonio Richardson allowed to all-world defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

As the final second slipped off the clock, the team sprinted to the few Tennessee fans who toughed it out in the brisk November night.

The band blared "Rocky Top" one last time, as players raised helmets and hollered those familiar lyrics.

Inside the raucous crowd, James found Zach Fulton. The two seniors shared a head nod, laughed, then embraced in a hug.

"That's it," James said. "That's a good way to end it, but I wish it wasn't over."

Like James, Tennessee fans will soon be wishing their time wasn't up just yet.


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