O-line overhaul

At InsideTennessee we believe it's never too early to start looking ahead to next year in Vol football. Check out this analysis of an area that faces a major rebuilding job in 2014:

With four seniors out of eligibility and junior Antonio Richardson opting for the NFL Draft, all five of Tennessee's 2013 offensive line starters played their final game as Vols in the season finale at Kentucky.

Here's a look at what is departing:

Right tackle Ja'Wuan James, 49 career starts

Right guard Zach Fulton, 40 career starts

Center James Stone, 39 career starts

Left guard Alex Bullard, 25 career starts

Left tackle Tiny Richardson, 24 career starts

Naturally, Big Orange fans are wringing their hands, assuming so much attrition in one area in one year will leave Tennessee with an unproven and unproductive line in 2014. Two Vol veterans strongly disagree. They believe in the talented backups who will be returning.

"With those guys, I feel like they're in pretty good position right now," Fulton said. "They've been working hard ever since Coach (Butch) Jones' staff got here, so I feel like we're leaving things in a pretty good position."

Stone echoes those sentiments.

"I'm very confident in the guys behind us," he said. "I've seen them busting their butts these past few years, especially (backup center) Mack Crowder, plus guys like Kyler Kerbyson and Marcus Jackson, who have some playing experience. When you see guys like that you know you can trust them to go in the game now, so you feel very confident that the guys who are going to be filling your shoes are going to be great players.

"I feel like we're leaving it (O-line) in excellent hands."

Like James and Fulton, Stone was thrust into the starting lineup as a freshman, rather than growing into the role over time.

"We all had to go out there and play early," he said. "I feel like you get a lot of valuable experience from that but I feel like you get some valuable things from sitting back and learning from older guys, too…. We've watched guys like Kyler Kerbyson and Mack Crowder develop like crazy over these past few years, so you're really confident in those guys."

With Richardson projected as a first-round NFL Draft pick, the loss of the entire starting O-line has been a foregone conclusion all season. That may have motivated the backups.

"I think it did," Fulton said. "They know that the majority of us are leaving, so they've been working hard – busting their butts – all season."

James, Fulton and Stone have seen this script before. They were part of an O-line that boasted five new starters in 2010. The Vols did OK with a patchwork line that fall, and Fulton is convinced they'll do the same next fall, as well.

"The offensive line at Tennessee is always going to be good," he said. "I have a lot of faith in that."

Offensive line coach Don Mahoney knows he must overhaul his blocking wall between now and the 2014 opener. It's a challenge he relishes.

"I've been a part of it before, part of a program where we had to replace some guys up front," he said. "This is an extremely talented group (of seniors) that will be missed. This is a group of guys that has played a lot of football. But that's why we play this game – the challenges that it presents us in every way, shape or form. It's a challenge that we as a program will roll our sleeves up and go to work on."

Like Fulton and Stone, Mahoney has confidence in returning backups Kerbyson, Crowder and Dylan Wiesman. He also believes in three guys who redshirted in 2013 – junior Marcus Jackson, plus freshmen Austin Sanders and Brett Kendrick.

"I like what I've seen," the Vol aide said. "The guy that has probably made the most strides that has played a little bit in some situations and some roles is Kyler Kerbyson. I've seen a lot of maturing from him and a lot of want-to from him."

Like Jackson and Wiesman, Kerbyson is best suited to guard, although Mahoney said he could help at center and even play some tackle "in an emergency type of deal."

Sanders' and Kendrick's chief competition for the tackle spots will come from Dontavius Blair, a 6-foot-7, 300-pound commitment from Garden City (Kansas) Community College. Mahoney can't comment on unsigned prospects but says junior-college linemen typically are more advanced than their high school counterparts.

"The biggest thing is maturity," the Vol aide said. "They're a little bit more mature. They've played against a speed that's much greater than what the high school level is at. Their ability to adapt can be an advantage to where they would have a chance to help."

Although Tennessee's 2014 linemen won't be as experienced or as physically advanced as the 2013 group, they appear to be quite motivated.

"Those (backup) guys are anxious, like we are, to get this program where it needs to be," Mahoney said. "I think they're excited to play but also they have a lot of desire to get this program where we want it to be."

Mack Crowder

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