Man on the move

Sometimes the people who play the games are just as interesting as the games themselves. Check out this feature on a Vol offensive lineman whose willingness and ability to repeatedly change positions has helped the Big Orange achieve a 2-1 record to date:

Fourth-year junior Kyler Kerbyson was supposed to start at right guard for Tennessee this fall, occasionally filling in at left guard and center. That was Plan A.

When Jashon Robertson showed a real knack for blocking after switching from defensive line to offensive line, however, the freshman settled in at right guard and Kerbyson moved to right tackle. This was Plan B.

After starting Games 1 and 2 at right tackle, Kerbyson found himself moving to left tackle to fill the void created by Jacob Gilliam’s season-ending ACL tear. This was Plan C.

To recap: Kerbyson spent the first two weeks of preseason camp at right guard, also getting some repetitions at left guard and center. He spent the next two weeks of camp and the first two weeks of the season at right tackle. Now in his second week as the No. 1 left tackle, he remains ready to fill in at right tackle, both guard spots and center if needed.

Confused? No problem. All is well so long as Kerbyson knows what position he’s playing on a given snap. And that has been the case through the first three games of 2014, to the relief – but not the surprise – of the Vols’ offensive line coach.

“I’ve got to hand it to him: He’s a guy that if we asked him to drive the bus he’d do that, as well,” Don Mahoney said. “It doesn’t really matter from his standpoint. He says, ‘Coach, I’ll figure it out and I’ll do it.’ I’ve been proud of his efforts and his commitment; whatever he needs to do he’ll do.”

Kerbyson’s willingness to play anywhere is understandable. After redshirting as a freshman in 2010, the 6-foot-4, 304-pound Knoxville Catholic product spent 2011, 2012 and 2013 as a little-used backup behind four-year starting right guard Zach Fulton. Naturally, after four years of relative inactivity, Kerbyson is thrilled about having a chance to play. That was apparent last April, when his dedication earned recognition as “Most Improved Offensive Player” of spring practice.

“He’s waited his turn long enough,” Mahoney conceded.

In an era of increasing specialization, most linemen are typecast early in their careers. The tall, long-armed pass protectors play tackle. The road-grading run blockers play guard and the stumpy guys with limited mobility play center. Finding one guy versatile enough and cerebral enough to play both tackle spots, both guard spots and center is a real challenge.

"It is kind of rough,” Kerbyson told InsideTennessee, “but Coach Mahoney expects a lot out of us. The tests that we do on Fridays (on the eve of Saturday games) we have to know what everyone does on every play. If you don't know what you’re doing, even if you get moved, it’s not on him – it’s on you – because we talk about it all the time."

Kerbyson is exceptionally bright. Still, he struggles at times with the task of knowing the alignments and assignments for all five O-line positions.

“The toughest part,” he said, “would be switching up your footwork – being able to change from right to left, being predominant with one foot or the other. That would be the toughest part.”

The greatest tribute to Kerbyson is that a guy physically suited to guard could adapt to left tackle, the toughest O-line position of all. Entrusted with protecting the quarterback’s blind side, the left tackle generally faces the opposing team’s finest pass rusher on every play. That’s a tall order for a guy whose natural position is right guard.

To his credit, Kerbyson is doing everything in his power to become the best right guard-turned-left tackle he can be.

“He’s attacking it,” Mahoney said. “Now he has a chance with the open date to settle into that position, (learn to) kick-slide out and all of those things. I’ve been proud of the way he’s attacked it.”

MARCUS JACKSON
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)

So has quarterback Justin Worley, the guy who pays the price if Kerbyson gets beat in pass protection.

“I have a ton of faith in Kyler,” Worley said. “He’s done a great job, adjusting from right guard to right tackle to left tackle … and he’s played some center here and there. Having a versatile guy on the line like that is huge. Now it’s just a matter of chemistry with whoever he’s next to. He and (left guard) Marcus (Jackson) seem to be doing a good job of molding together well.”

Because of the Gilliam injury, Tennessee has started a different offensive line grouping in each of its first three games. That can be catastrophic in an area where familiarity and cohesion are critical.

"It’s been a little rough,” Kerbyson conceded, “but we are all so close as an O-line that it really doesn't matter. We spend so much time together outside of football that it's not like ‘Oh, no, I'm playing next to this guy.’ It's ‘Oh, good, I get to play next to one of my friends.’"

In an effort to improve familiarity and cohesion, Vol head coach Butch Jones plans to start the same five O-line who started Game 3 at Oklahoma the rest of the season. Kerbyson finds that very comforting.

“It gives us a lot of confidence, helps us mesh together, spend some time together,” he said. “Me and Marcus get some more time together. We just played together (for the first time) last week. We never really played next to each other. It also gives (right guard) Jay (Jashon Robertson) and (right tackle) Coleman (Thomas) a lot of time together, which is really, really important.”

Being freshmen, Robertson and Thomas are going to require a lot of fine-tuning. They got some much-needed attention during the open-date week following the loss at Oklahoma.

“We’ve done a lot of youth stuff because we don’t have an opponent,” Kerbyson said. “We got some periods in where it was just the young players, where they could learn and become better at their craft. That allowed us older players to teach them the things they need some work on.”

If any of the young players needs a lesson in changing positions, Kyler Kerbyson would be the ideal guy to teach it.

Don Mahoney video interview


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