Position analysis: O-line

InsideTennessee continues its position-by-position look at the 2014 Vol football team. Today's focus is the offensive line.

Unless you’ve been visiting another planet the past six months you’re acutely aware that Tennessee will have five new starters in its offensive line this fall. You’re also acutely aware that this is causing much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Big Orange Country.

Quick reminder: Tennessee traveled this very road – a complete O-line makeover – just four years ago.

After losing four senior starters to graduation and redshirt freshman Aaron Douglas to transfer in 2009, the Vols’ 2010 blocking front faced the identical challenge that the 2014 line does: Blend five newcomers into a cohesive unit. Tennessee succeeded in 2010, posting comparable numbers to those posted in 2009 with a veteran line.

Check it out:

The 2010 Vols averaged 363.8 total yards per game, down just 20 yards from the 2009 norm of 383.5. The 2010 Vols averaged 27.0 points per game, a modest drop from the 29.3 mark of the previous season.

How was this accomplished? Simple. Tennessee built its 2010 offense around the strength of the O-line. The five newcomers were good pass protectors, so the Vols threw for 3,309 yards and rushed for just 1,420. The 2014 line, by comparison, appears better at run blocking than pass protecting, so this fall could see the Vols rely more heavily on the running back’s legs than the quarterback’s arm.

Although the 2010 and 2014 lines are similarly short on starting experience, the ’14 group is far more mature than the 2010 group was. Consider:

The 2010 line featured a true freshman (James Stone) at center. The 2014 line will feature a redshirt junior with one career start (Mack Crowder) at center.

The 2010 line featured a true freshman (Zach Fulton) at left guard. The 2014 line will feature a redshirt junior (Kyler Kerbyson) at left guard who was voted Most Improved Offensive Player of spring practice.

The 2010 line featured a senior who had been relegated to mostly mop-up duty (Jerod Shaw) at right guard. The 2014 line will feature a redshirt junior with five career starts (Marcus Jackson) at right guard.

The 2010 line featured a true freshman (Ja’Wuan James) at right tackle. The 2014 line also will feature a true freshman (Coleman Thomas) at right tackle.

The 2010 line featured a sophomore (Dallas Thomas) at left tackle. The 2014 line will feature either a fifth-year senior (Jacob Gilliam) or a junior (Dontavius Blair) at left tackle.

Here’s another point to ponder: The 2010 line was coached by Harry Hiestand, who was so at odds with his players that he was shown the door a year later. The 2014 line is coached by Don Mahoney, who is liked and respected by his troops.

Although experience is nice, it doesn’t guarantee success. Last fall’s offensive line entered the 2013 season with 118 career starts among James, Fulton, Stone, Alex Bullard and Tiny Richardson. Still, that veteran group was chastised throughout September, October and November for underachieving.

Whereas the 2013 O-line entered last fall with 118 career starts, the projected 2014 starting line enters this fall with just six career starts – five by Jackson, one by Crowder. Naturally, there will be a drop-off in efficiency. As happened from 2009 to 2010, however, the drop may not be nearly as steep as many observers expect.

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