The blockers surrendered six sacks, one of which caused a Justin Worley fumble that set up a 30-yard drive for Florida’s only touchdown. They allowed Worley to be hurried into a pair of interceptions – one coming on first down at the Gator 13-yard line when Tennessee had a chance to blow the game open; the other snuffing the Vols’ final drive. Their run blocking was no better. Tailbacks Jalen Hurd and Marlin Lane combined for just 62 yards on 20 carries. Several times they broke tackles just to get back to the line of scrimmage.
If you’re looking for a sacrificial lamb, Tennessee’s offensive line is the overwhelming choice. Knowing this, head coach Butch Jones went to great lengths to support his beleaguered blockers during Monday’s news conference.
“Everyone wants the prize,” he said, “but no one wants the process.”
Translation: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a good offensive line.
“I don’t know if you guys (media) really, truly, totally understand that the offensive line positions are developmental positions,” Jones said, slightly exasperated. “Name me another school in the country that’s starting two freshmen in the offensive line. They’re developmental positions."
The coach noted that offensive linemen typically take three years to develop, hitting their stride as juniors or redshirt sophomores. The reason, he added, is "the volume of communication, the physicality, the technique, the mental toughness.”
Merely finding good offensive-line prospects is no easy task. Most of the guys who play there do so because they can’t get on the field at any other position.
“That’s the most unglorified position in sport,” Jones said. “They never get complimented. They don’t score touchdowns. It’s like a fist fight in a phone booth on every single snap. There’s a mental toughness that goes into it. It’s a gladiator sport inside.”
“Are some players playing maybe before their time?” Jones asked rhetorically. “Maybe. But I think they’re doing a fairly decent job. We have to continue to get better. They’re all that we have, and I believe in ‘em. (Line coach) Don Mahoney does a great job in how far they’ve come from Week 1 to now. If you watch the videotape you’ll see the development.”
That development was not visible in the loss to Florida, however. When asked if he might revisit his decision to start the same five offensive linemen the rest of the season, Jones smiled smugly and replied, “With who?
“It is what it is. Those are the five we have. Those are the five we feel give us the best opportunity on Saturdays and we’re sticking with those five.”
Jones was too polite to mention it but predecessor Derek Dooley did not sign a single offensive lineman in the 2012 recruiting class. In addition, Tiny Richardson's decision to declare for the NFL Draft a year early left just two senior offensive linemen on the 2014 roster - fifth-year guys Marques Pair (slowed by bad knees) and former walk-on Jacob Gilliam (out with a torn ACL).
“We’re down two full recruiting classes in the offensive line,” Jones noted. “That’s just the realities of where we’re at in our football program.”
Making matters worse is the fact some guys who were being counted on have yet to contribute. Dylan Wiesman looked like a future star when he arrived on campus two years ago but has scarcely seen the field due to a rash of injuries.
“He went into the Florida game with a banged-up shoulder from practice, so he was kind of unavailable,” Jones said.
And JUCO All-American Dontavius Blair, expected to win the left tackle job this fall, is being redshirted while developing strength and familiarity with the blocking scheme.
The frustration of Tennessee fans is easy to understand. The Vols were good enough to beat the Gators at a lot of positions on Saturday. Tennessee’s O-line was manhandled by Florida’s D-line, however, and that gave the visitors just enough traction to pull out a 10-9 victory.
“Football still comes down to one-on-one matchups,” Jones said. “There’s only so much you can do. Everyone thinks a play call is a magical cure. Everybody runs the same plays. It comes down to execution … one-on-one matchups. There’s only so many things we can do in run schemes and pass schemes.”
The weakness of Tennessee’s offensive line is especially problematical in the red zone, where the Vols’ glut of wideout talent is neutralized by space limitations.
“It is magnified in the red zone,” Jones conceded, “because your throwing lanes shrink. Your timing shrinks. Your landmarks shrink, so the timing mechanism is sped up the closer you get to the goal line.”
Responding to a direct question about using a fullback to help run block and pass protect, Jones answered that Vol tight ends occasionally line up at fullback. In response to another direct question about having Worley roll out to avoid the rush, Jones said the Vols are doing more of that each week.
“Schematically,” Jones said, “we’re doing the right things.”
Like Tennessee’s fans, Tennessee’s coach realizes that the team’s biggest problem is its offensive line. The difference is, fans are discouraged because they see no progress. Conversely, Jones is encouraged because he sees progress … even if he has to look hard to find it.
“I just want to see a consistency in approach,” he said, “in terms of fundamentals, hat placement, hand placement, finishing plays, not having mental errors – all of those little things.”
If nothing else, the Florida game proved that those little things can add up to a big hangover.