The reason? New offensive coordinator Mike DeBord is spending almost as much time with the blockers as offensive line coach Don Mahoney does. Basically, the O-linemen are getting twice the attention they got a year ago … and they love it.
“Coach Mo (Mahoney) jokes all the time that their offensive staff meetings are like O-line meetings,” sophomore tackle Brett Kendrick told InsideTennessee, flashing a big grin. “Coach DeBord is an offensive line guy, so he’s always all over the offensive line. He’s the first to criticize the offensive line, and Coach Mo really likes that.”
No one enjoys criticism, of course. Still, Tennessee’s blockers would much rather hear it from their coaches than their fans – as was the case last fall, when the O-line suffered a daily beat-down on message boards and talk radio. Obviously, the best way to stop the criticism is to improve, and the best way to improve is to get intense coaching. Tennessee’s offensive linemen certainly qualify on that score, with DeBord and Mahoney essentially double-teaming them each day.
“That’s been a lot of fun for us – having an offensive coordinator that really will teach us,” Kendrick said. “We have pretty much two coaches teaching us technique, so that’s really been helpful.”
Guard Jashon Robertson also finds DeBord’s input to be a huge plus for the offensive line.
"He just has a lot of energy as far as the running game,” Robertson said. “He has a lot of energy towards the offensive line. He likes a lot of the things we do. You can tell he enjoys and loves his job, so it's been very exciting being around Coach DeBord and working with him."
DeBord makes quite clear that his job involves overseeing all of the offensive positions and not just the linemen. He also makes quite clear that the time he spends with the O-line in no way represents a lack of confidence in Mahoney. Simply put: The offensive line has a long way to go, and it will get there quicker with two guys rowing the boat instead of one.
Does Mahoney feel DeBord is meddling? Not at all. Mahoney seems genuinely thrilled by the assistance. He and DeBord clearly enjoy double-teaming the blockers. Twice the coaching may not mean twice the progress but it clearly accelerates the growth process for some of the Vols.
“It does,” Mahoney said. “You can never have enough eyes on the offensive line – from stance to step to footwork to landmarks – all of that. I think as linemen there’s the excitement, myself included, when the offensive coordinator is that much involved.”
DeBord played offensive line in college and has coached the position extensively – Franklin College (1982-83), Fort Hays State (’84), Eastern Illinois (’87-88), Ball State (’88-89), Colorado State (’90-91), Northwestern (’92), Michigan (’93-96) and one year with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks (2008). The fact he coached the same basic system as head man at Central Michigan (2000-2003) that Tennessee now plays under DeBord protégé Butch Jones is gravy.
“He knows exactly what we do, so that’s been fun,” Mahoney said. “I love it. I love it! We’ve got a ways to go but I like the impact Coach DeBord is having with us. Having coached the position makes it that much better.”
Although he observes all of Tennessee’s offensive players, DeBord seems drawn to the O-linemen, in particular. One recent drill saw the coordinator repeatedly bark “Get your pads down! Keep those pads down!” at a group of centers. The pad level quickly improved.
“He does a good job,” Kendrick said. “He came over there with us (during a recent workout) when we were pushing the sled. He’s always talking about our second step and effort.”
Fans who fretted that Tennessee’s offense might slow down a bit once the 59-year-old DeBord succeeded 39-year-old Mike Bajakian can relax. Based on Saturday’s scrimmaging, the attack is as fast as ever … maybe faster.
“In the scrimmage we didn't go as fast we will be going in Week 1 (of the season),” Robertson said. “But, as far as practices, it's a blur. We're going as fast as I've ever gone. We'll go faster, and we'll continue to work on things to go faster, but I've definitely seen some improvement on speed."
A young and injury-riddled offensive line allowed 43 sacks last fall, probably costing Tennessee a couple of games it could’ve won with better blocking. Since everyone returns except starting right tackle Jacob Gilliam, the O-line should be noticeably better in 2015.
“A year ago we had like six starts,” Kendrick noted. “Mack Crowder had started one game and Marcus Jackson had started a few (five) but none of the rest of us had really seen what it was like in the SEC to get in there and start games. This year we’ve got a bunch of guys that have started games and know what it takes to win games. That experience has helped our leadership with the younger guys that haven’t played.”
Tennessee’s offensive line peaked in the TaxSlayer Bowl. In addition to allowing just one sack, it opened holes that produced 244 rushing yards and a 7.0 yards-per-carry average. That did wonders for the blockers’ self-esteem.
“We’re way more confident this year,” Kendrick said. “Just playing against other guys, we know we can hang with these guys – know we can beat ‘em – so our confidence is way up right now.”
In addition to the rise in confidence, Tennessee’s O-line is experiencing a rise in energy. DeBord is pretty animated for a 59-year-old, especially when he’s working with the blockers.
“I enjoy it,” he said, grinning broadly. “I enjoy coaching those guys. I always have. I played the position, so I know what those guys go through on every play. I like to go down there any opportunity I get.”