“There’s times I looked out there,” head coach Butch Jones said, “and the whole right side of our offense was true freshmen — (guard) Jashon Robertson, (tackle) Coleman Thomas, (tight end) Daniel Helm, (receiver) Josh Malone and (running back) Jalen Hurd.”
With a sheepish grin, the coach added: “It is what it is.”
And what it is, is amazing. Robertson won a first-team job at right guard in preseason two weeks after being switched over from defensive tackle. Thomas earned his starting spot in a shuffle prompted when fifth-year senior Jacob Gilliam suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Game 1. Helm started Game 3 in place of fellow freshman Ethan Wolf (high-ankle sprain) and Malone started in place of junior Von Pearson, who also has a high-ankle sprain. Hurd is listed second-team behind senior Marlin Lane but is getting the bulk of the snaps and the carries.
The fact these freshmen are starting in Year 1 obviously means there are some bright days in the future. It also means there are some growing pains in the present.
“We have to be careful that we don’t put so much stress and expectations on these 17- and 18-year-olds,” Jones said. “They’re still freshmen, still learning.”
No area of the team is having to learn as quickly as the offensive line. Now that Tennessee essentially replaced a fifth-year senior (Gilliam) with a freshman (Thomas), the O-line probably ranks as the youngest in the Football Bowl Subdivision. That youth was painfully evident against Oklahoma, as Tennessee managed a putrid minus-11 rushing yards in the first half.
Incredibly, the Vols bounced back to register plus-123 rushing yards in the second half. Did Sooner defenders relax? Did Tennessee make a bunch of schematic changes? Did the Vols dip into their bag of tricks for some gadget plays?
No, no and no, says Jones. The difference between the first half and second half could be summed up in two words.
“We executed,” the head man said. “We ran the same plays. We just executed.”
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney was not surprised by the vast improvement in Tennessee’s blocking from the first half to the second half. He has an abiding respect for this group of linemen.
“I love their workmanlike attitude and I love their approach,” he said. “We’re just going to keep working and keep grinding away. It’s got to come sooner rather than later. We’re going to get there. I know we will because I believe in the guys in that room and I believe in their approach.”
Jones said after the game that he expects the five O-linemen who started Game 3 to start the rest of the way. Mahoney agrees.
“The last couple of weeks there’s been some separation by some guys,” the Vol aide said. “Some guys are proving themselves on a daily basis in their approach and their practice habits and their want-to. Some (backup) guys have got to step it up that aren’t quite there yet.”
Although the O-line contributed greatly to the improved ground game in the second half, Jones said the credit needs to be spread wider than that.
“It’s all 11 doing their job,” he said. “It’s each individual taking responsibility to win that one-on-one matchup. We were able to do that (after halftime). I thought Jalen (Hurd) made some good plays. He made an individual miss in space, and we made some plays on the perimeter but, really, it comes down to execution.”
Hurd’s execution certainly appeared improved. After averaging 3.3 yards per carry in the first two games, he ran 14 times for 97 yards in Game 3 against by far the best defense he has faced to date. Still, he is just beginning to scratch his potential.
“His pad level can get better,” running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. “His patience, leg drive to finish his runs, pass protection … where to put his hands, eye discipline – just the small details that the outside eye doesn’t see. Those are the small things that are going to push him to be, not just a runner, but a complete running back.”
Like Mahoney, Gillespie wasn’t surprised to see Tennessee’s rushing total jump from minus-11 in the first half to plus-123 in the second.
“We just had to be patient,” he said. “The running game is a patient mechanism. You have to take time with it. You have to take the three-yard gain and the one-yard gain, then all of a sudden the eight-yard gain will come. It’s just us as an offense having more confidence in the run game in the second half.
“I think the offensive line got a little fired up in the second half, and obviously Jalen and Marlin stepped up to the challenge. It was positive to end on that note. Obviously, we’re still not what we want but, with a young team on the offensive side of the ball, it was good strides.”
Mahoney agreed with that assessment. Losing is not acceptable but the growth exhibited by Tennessee’s offensive freshmen Saturday night bodes awfully well for the future.
“There’s frustration in the fact that we didn’t accomplish what we set out to do,” Mahoney said. “But there’s a lot of reason to be excited. We’ve got a bright future, and we’ve just got to keep developing these guys.
“Again, I can’t say enough about their attitude and their approach. You see those guys and where they want this program to be, that’s what drives us and keeps us going.
“We’re going to get there.”
“Attack of the Newbies” … coming soon to a stadium near you.
Mack Crowder video interview
Josh Malone video interview