Can Vols O-line be decent?

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“You know, Tennessee could be really good this year if the offensive line is just decent.”

If you haven’t uttered that line, you’ve surely heard it. Vol offensive linemen have heard it plenty, and they find it motivational as they hurtle toward the 2015 opener.

“I love it,” senior tackle Kyler Kerbyson said. “I like having pressure on us. I feel like it makes us better. I really want it to be on us.”

Fans expect Tennessee to get exceptional play at quarterback, running back, tight end and wide receiver. The only area of concern on offense is the line, which grossly underachieved last fall.

“Everyone talks about the skill guys, how they’re young but they’re talented,” Kerbyson said. “It’s always a question mark with the O-line but I want to show people that we’re the glue that holds it together.”

First-year offensive coordinator Mike DeBord stops short of agreeing that the criticism the O-line took in 2014 is motivating the guys for 2015, however.

“Last year is last year, and I don’t know what their thoughts are,” he told InsideTennessee. “That’s behind us. What we’re doing right now is just trying to get one percent better every day. They’re going to be doing that because of their mindset right now, so I feel good about them.”

Sophomore guard Jashon Robertson is happy that many fans consider the development of the O-line to be the key to Tennessee’s 2015 season.

“We like to have expectations on our back,” he said. “We’re going to work every single day, with attention to detail. We’re going to put our heads down, bring our lunch box every day and just grind.”

A key problem last fall was inexperience. The starting line consisted of a senior with a torn ACL (Jacob Gilliam), a junior who entered 2014 with five career starts (Marcus Jackson), a junior with one start (Mack Crowder), a junior with zero starts (Kerbyson) and a true freshman (Robertson). The top reserve was another freshman (Coleman Thomas).

Whereas the O-line corps boasted just six combined starts heading into 2014, it will have 52 heading into 2015. That makes a difference.

“Having a year under your belt makes a lot of difference; it really, really does,” Kerbyson said. “I feel like I’m a totally different player than the start of last season. I think every offensive lineman feels that way. Mack and Marcus and Brett all feel different than last year – more mature as football players.”

Having some grizzled veterans across the blocking front should help talented freshmen such as Jack Jones, Drew Richmond, Venzell Boulware and Chance Hall develop faster, as well.

“We have youth — just like last year — but we also have three fifth-year seniors (Kerbyson, Jackson, Crowder), so we have a lot of leadership,” Robertson said. I think we have a good blend, with the younger guys following the older guys.”

Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)

The fact a former walk-on with a torn ACL (Gilliam) was one of Tennessee’s five best linemen a year ago makes one point abundantly clear about the 2014 blocking front: It was perilously thin. That should not be a problem in 2015.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that competition always makes an individual better and a unit better, and we have great competition in there right now,” DeBord said. “We’re just going to have to find out who the five best guys are, and we need to find ‘em fairly fast. But I like the competition. I like the guys.”

One way to improve the competition is teaching guys to play multiple positions. Thomas can play center and tackle. Robertson can play guard and tackle. Jackson can play either guard. Kendrick can play either tackle. Kerbyson can play anywhere across the front.

“Coach Mo says he don’t want anybody to be a one-trick pony,” Robertson said. “You never know what the best five will be in the lineup. You never know what will happen, so you’ve got to be ready (to play multiple positions).”

Five days into fall camp, the shuffling already has begun.

“We’ve started to move guys around,” head coach Butch Jones said. “We have to find the right five, six, seven individuals, so we’re going to keep moving individuals around until we find that right mix that’s going to play football the way we expect ‘em to play.”

Tight end Ethan Wolf, who lines up next to the O-linemen much of the time, sees signs of significant progress from last August to this August.

“Obviously, experience and depth are better,” Wolf said. “And we’ve got more guys (who are potential contributors) in this recruiting class. The drive to get better is something that’s improving from last year, so it’s going to be exciting to see what they can do at the end of this training camp.”

Take a high-definition look at Tennessee's O-line by clicking on the InsideTennessee video below:


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