A four-star recruit when he signed with the Vols out of Garden City (Kansas) Community College 14 months ago, the 6-foot-8, 300-pound mid-term enrollee was supposed to claim the starting left tackle job in spring practice. His strength and work ethic were not nearly as impressive as his size, however, and he was beaten out by former walk-on Jacob Gilliam for the first-team job.
The offseason conditioning program was expected to make a big difference but it didn’t. Blair was so unimpressive in preseason camp last August that coaches decided to redshirt him, even though that meant starting true freshman Coleman Thomas at right tackle. Blair slipped so far down the depth chart, in fact, that when Gilliam suffered a Game 1 ACL tear the Vol staff wound up switching right guard Kyler Kerbyson to left tackle rather than plugging in Blair.
Now that he’s had a full year on The Hill to improve his strength and stamina Blair gets a second chance to upgrade Tennessee’s suspect tackle situation in 2015. Gilliam is out of eligibility and Kerbyson is still a much better fit at guard than tackle, so Blair’s path to a starting job is virtually clear.
The obvious question: Has he progressed enough to warrant a spot in the lineup? One Vol defensive end who faced him every day in practice thinks so.
“That’s my boy,” said Derek Barnett, who earned Freshman All-America recognition after recording 10 sacks his first year on campus. “He gives me a good look in practice. He don’t let me get nothing easy. He gives me scout-team looks but he makes me work for everything.”
Normal progress should have made Blair a better player in December TaxSlayer Bowl workouts than he was in August preseason workouts. Apparently, strides were made.
“He’s improved a bunch,” Barnett told InsideTennessee. “He pushed me, even on the scout team. He’s gotten a lot more physical and he’s more confident. I know next year he’s going to play a big role for our team.”
Corey Vereen, another Vol defensive end who faced Blair routinely in practice, also sees signs of progress in the towering tackle.
|TENNESSEE DEFENSIVE END COREY VEREEN|
“He’s definitely looking good,” Vereen told IT. “In our scout-team periods he was definitely giving us a great look. He’s really good at tackle. He’s long and he’s giving us everything he has.”
Giving “everything he has” is somewhat of a recent development. Blair took a lot of plays off last spring and last preseason. When asked to identify the biggest change in Blair since he arrived on campus more than a year ago, Vereen replied: “He has more juice to him, a little more energy.”
Vol offensive line coach Don Mahoney is glad to see more energy but he’s even happier to see more muscle on Blair’s rangy frame as spring practice approaches.
“Probably the biggest value for him, on top of the football, is that time in the weight room with (strength) coach (Dave) Lawson,” Mahoney told IT. “That’s practice, meetings and now the weight-room part of it. It’s around the clock now. It’s that much more time to work his hand speed, his leverage, his pad level and those kinds of things. There’s quite a bit for him to work on but the weight room’s the biggest. That’s the one thing we had to address as the season went on – for him to improve his strength.”
As fans are acutely aware, the offensive line was the weak link of Tennessee’s team in 2014. After getting manhandled by the defensive fronts of Florida and Missouri during the regular season, however, the O-line finished with a flourish in a 45-28 TaxSlayer Bowl beat-down of Iowa. If Blair can help solidify the tackle position, the blocking front could be significantly better in 2015.
“The consistency part is what we need to get better at,” Mahoney said. “I think there’s enough flashes in there that we can say we’re getting close to what we want. We just need to be more consistent at it.”