After an encouraging performance in its season opener, Tennessee's offensive line is about to discover just how far it has come in the last year.
Oklahoma sacked former Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley five times and pressured him throughout a 34-10 victory over the Volunteers last season. That game set the tone for a season in which Tennessee allowed 43 sacks, the most in the Southeastern Conference.
The 23rd-ranked Vols say they're stronger up front this year and backed up that confidence last week by allowing only one sack and paving the way for a 399-yard rushing performance in a 59-30 victory over Bowling Green. They can make an even bigger statement Saturday when they face No. 19 Oklahoma again.
"It gives us a lot of confidence," offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson said of the line's effort against Bowling Green. "I think the more confidence you have, the better you play. It's not overconfidence by any means, but we're happy with our performance. There are definitely ways we can grow."
Tennessee's linemen already have grown quite a bit since last year's meeting with Oklahoma.
The Vols entered last season with six combined starts from their offensive linemen. The trip to Oklahoma marked the first time Kerbyson started at left tackle. Tennessee's starting right tackle that night was Coleman Thomas, a freshman making his first career start.
Kerbyson acknowledges he felt a little uncomfortable playing left tackle at that point in time. Thomas recalled that "as soon as I stepped off the plane, I was nervous," though he later clarified that he was "more anxious than nervous."
Kerbyson now has a year of experience at left tackle and is comfortable enough at that spot that he's the reigning Southeastern Conference offensive lineman of the week. After making five starts at right tackle last year, Thomas has returned to his natural position of center and beat out incumbent starter Mack Crowder for a spot on Tennessee's first-team line.
"I like being, I guess, the quarterback on the offensive line," Thomas said. "I like making calls and snapping."
The rest of the first-team line includes Jashon Robertson at left guard, Dylan Wiesman at right guard and Brett Kendrick at right tackle. That offensive line is protecting a more mobile quarterback this year now that Joshua Dobbs has taken over that position.
|Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker|
Tennessee's improvement up front was obvious last week. Alvin Kamara rushed for 144 yards and Jalen Hurd gained 123, giving Tennessee two 100-yard rushers in the same game for the first time since 2009. Tennessee's 399-yard rushing total was its best since 1994.
Dobbs was just 11 yards away from giving Tennessee three 100-yard rushers in the same game for the first time since 1991.
The Vols face a much tougher test this week. Oklahoma returns senior linebacker Eric Striker, who continually worked his way into Tennessee's backfield last year.
"He's really the heart of the defense," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "Eric's a key leader for us. He has the pulse of everybody. He gets everybody going."
The threat of Striker and Co. helps explain why Tennessee isn't satisfied.
"When you put the video in, it's never as bad as it seems and it's never as good as it seems," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "We have to take monumental growth up front in sustaining blocks, blocking at the second level and just our overall level of communication with all five (linemen)."
But the line's results sure seem better now than a year ago.