For Tennessee assistant Don Mahoney, “What’s My Line?” is more than the name of a popular TV game show from the 1950s and ‘60s. It was a legitimate question during a 2014 regular season that saw him start six different offensive line groupings in 12 games due to inexperience, injury and position changes.
In 20 years of college coaching Mahoney has never experienced anything even remotely similar in terms of season-long instability.
“Never,” he said. “It’s been as crazy as a year could be. I’ve never had as many different things and scenarios happen. As you go through coaching, you’ve got to have a plan in mind. Like, as soon as Mack (Crowder) got hurt against Kentucky, that evening I was already thinking about moving forward about what we were going to do.”
Tennessee’s O-line problems began last spring, when junior-college transfer Dontavius Blair showed up out of shape and under-motivated. Beaten out for the left tackle job by former walk-on Jacob Gilliam, Blair wound up redshirting to work on improving his strength.
The line outlook became so unsettled in August that the Vols moved right guard Kyler Kerbyson to right tackle, then switched freshman Jashon Robertson from defensive tackle to right guard and immediately elevated him to first team. That group started Game 1, along with junior left guard Marcus Jackson and junior center Mack Crowder.
When Gilliam suffered an ACL tear in Game 1, Tennessee started its second O-line grouping of the season in Game 2, plugging in redshirt freshman Brett Kendrick at left tackle.
When Kendrick struggled in his first significant playing time, Tennessee made an unlikely move – switching Kerbyson from right guard to left tackle. That meant starting freshman Coleman Thomas, a center in high school, at right tackle. As a result, Tennessee started its third O-line of the season in Game 3 – featuring a right guard (Kerbyson) at left tackle and two freshmen (Robertson, Thomas) at right guard and right tackle.
Jackson missed Game 8 against Alabama with a leg injury, forcing Tennessee to go with its fourth O-line grouping of 2014: Kerbyson plugged the gap at left guard and Kendrick started at left tackle. Gilliam, though too limited by the ACL tear to play left tackle, replaced Thomas as the starting right tackle.
Jackson’s return for Game 9 bumped Kerbyson back to left tackle and Kendrick back to the bench, giving Tennessee its fifth starting O-line of the season. Crowder suffered knee and ankle injuries in Game 10, forcing guard Dylan Wiesman to start Games 11 and 12 at center.
To recap: Tennessee’s final blocking front of the regular season featured a natural right guard (Kerbyson) at left tackle, a natural guard (Wiesman) at center, a converted defensive lineman (Robertson) at right guard and a guy with a torn ACL (Gilliam) at right tackle.
Maybe that helps explain how Tennessee gave up a whopping 42 sacks and put a bunch of gray hairs in Mahoney’s head.
“I try to find a positive,” the line coach said somberly. “It’s been trying but I think we’ll all grow from this.”
That growth should start with freshmen Robertson (12 starts) and Thomas (five starts). Both suffered some growing pains but both should be significantly better in 2015.
“Playing in the hostile environments in this conference, it’s valuable for the guys to get so many reps,” Mahoney said. “For Coleman Thomas to play at Ole Miss in that kind of environment on a Saturday night, you can’t (simulate) that in a spring practice.”
Tennessee entered the 2014 season with just six starts returning on its offensive line – five by Jackson and one by Crowder. Assuming Crowder is healthy enough to start against Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2, the 2015 line will return 63 starts – 17 by Jackson, 12 by Crowder, 13 by Kerbyson, 13 by Robertson, six by Thomas and two by Wiesman.
That experience should help the line be much better in 2015 than it was in 2014, especially since several Vol returnees now feel comfortable at multiple positions.
“It will be huge,” Mahoney said. “The guys have had a chance to play a number of positions with what we’ve gone through this year. It’s something they can grow from. You’re not just a one-position guy. You have to be able to play a number of positions.”
No one knows that better than Kerbyson, a natural guard who started one regular-season game at right tackle, 10 at left tackle and only one game at left guard.
“It was a little difficult, mostly switching sides, right to left, left to right – trying to get your plant foot right and the technique it takes on different sides,” he conceded. “Switching from tackle to guard wasn’t that big of a difference but, definitely, switching sides was.”
Given all of the shifting he did, Kerbyson was not surprised to learn that Tennessee started six different O-line groupings in the 12 regular-season games.
“We just took it in stride,” he said. “All of us know every position. Even though we might not be the best at certain positions, we know what we’re doing out there. If somebody has to switch around, it’s going to be OK. We’re going to be able to play center, guard or tackle … whatever they need us to play.”
Robertson earns freshman honors