Tennessee's collection of playmakers on offense has created plenty of offseason excitement, but the Volunteers won't take a big leap forward unless they get dramatic improvement from their line.
Injuries and inexperience on the line last season caused Tennessee to allow 43 sacks, the most in the Southeastern Conference. Louisiana-Monroe, Penn State, Wyoming, SMU and Wake Forest were the only Football Bowl Subdivision programs to give up more sacks.
"Across the board, there (are) guys that last year last year was not to the standard of what this program's all about," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "Everybody needs to step it up."
The Vols have more experience this year as they return four offensive linemen who made at least 11 starts last season. That group includes tackle Kyler Kerbyson, center Mack Crowder and guards Marcus Jackson and Jashon Robertson.
"I think we'll be a lot better," Kerbyson said. "A whole year under our belt makes a huge difference."
Tennessee coach Butch Jones has noticed the change, though he acknowledges more work is needed.
"We are a much stronger unit than we were a year ago at this time," Jones said. "We still need to continue to develop that strength. We are not where we need to be. But I see marked progress across the board."
They're dealing with a couple of obstacles this spring.
Jackson is missing spring practice to recover from a shoulder injury. Coleman Thomas, who made five starts at right tackle last season, has been removed from team activities since getting arrested last week on a felony theft charge.
Their absences are preventing Tennessee's top linemen from working together. They also can't match up against the Vols' top two pass rushers since Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt are sitting out spring practice to recover from shoulder surgery.
Mahoney noted that he still has seen "enough from some guys where you feel like we're going in the right direction."
Kerbyson, who played three different positions on the line last season, has settled in at left tackle. Robertson has improved his versatility by getting some work at center. Mahoney complimented the progress of Brett Kendrick, who has been working out at right tackle.
Linemen say they've benefited from the arrival of new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, who has spent much of his career as an offensive line coach.
"We pretty much have two coaches or two teachers teaching us technique," Kendrick said. "It's been really helpful."
If Tennessee's line is merely adequate, this offense could be explosive.
Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara should give Tennessee a dynamic tandem at running back. Tennessee has its deepest receiving corps in Jones' three seasons. The Vols also have perhaps one of the SEC's top quarterbacks in Joshua Dobbs, who went 4-1 in the games he started last season.
The linemen just need to give those backs room to run and provide Dobbs time to throw. They don't want to deal with the same criticism they faced last season.
"It definitely is motivating," Kerbyson said. "We don't want to be seen as just the worst guys out there, the reason why we lose or anything like that. We want to be seen as a reason why we win, why we're a good football team, because the offensive line can get down their blocks, get those guys out in space, give Dobbs time and all that kind of stuff."
Butch talks Spring Practice 6
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Robertson discusses reps at center