Don Mahoney and Brett Kendrick arrived at Tennessee at the same time. Both coach and player were tasked with helping build up an offensive line that was in a remodeling phase, and Mahoney is still toying with his roster four years into his stint with the Vols.
Only this time, he's got a unit that is viewed as a strength instead of the offense's Achilles heel, and it's in part due to the flexibility and experience of Kendrick, who didn't play a down in 2013 while redshirting. The Knoxville native has gone from afterthought to example this spring while he teaches younger players like redshirt freshman Drew Richmond and sophomore Chance Hall.
"He's really had a solid spring," Mahoney said. "He's really a guy that's been a guy that we've really been using an example of as far as style of play, the fundamentals, the technique, the leverage we're looking for. He's just grown up. He's a guy that, as you go through offensive linemen anywhere, there's a process as a freshman, as a sophomore, as a junior, and the bodies change mentally, physically, all those things. He's really, really been solid this spring."
Kendrick's process landed him five starts last season while battling an injury, but now he's ready to shoulder a full workload. The redshirt junior has played every single position along the offensive line in practice during his Tennessee career, so he's versatile enough to log playing time across the offensive line. What position best fits him heading into fall camp?
"That's a great question," Mahoney said. "It's one in which we'll know more this fall, because as we finish things up Saturday, we've got some competition at some spots better than we ever have before. When some guys get completely healthy and we head into the fall, I think a lot's going to depend on how the summer goes with the lifting and the conditioning and the master of the footwork and fundamentals."
Kendrick has worked extensively at right tackle this spring, which is the position he started at last season. His ability to bounce around the line, though, helps Tennessee work around injuries and gives them a viable fit at every position along the line.
"I feel this: he can play them all," Mahoney said. "He can play tackle, he can play guard. We'd like to get him more work of him at center, but he is mentally sharp, smart and we can count on him at any position."
Neiko Creamer has been able to carve out his own niche under first-year tight ends coach Larry Scott. The redshirt sophomore has been asked to take on a physical role as a blocker this spring, and he's welcomed it with open arms.
Scott likes what he's seen out of his tight end so far and believes he can make an impact next season by embracing what Scott's asked him to become under his tutelage.
"That's what he brings to the table. He brings a certain amount of physicality," Scott said. "He's really improved on his fundamentals and his technique. The biggest part about him is he embraces the role and what that means. The biggest part of any player being good is understanding what they bring to the game and what we're going to ask them to be great at and becoming masters of that role. He's just that kind of guy."
Bob Shoop will tell you he's never met a blitz he doesn't like. The first-year Tennessee defensive coordinator values an aggressive style of play that disrupts offenses and keeps teams guessing.
Transitioning between defensive schemes can be a tough task, but while Shoop is still installing all of his wrinkles, he believes the concepts for his general scheme have been retained by his unit.
"Conceptually, I'd say we got 100 percent," Shoop said. "We didn't put every single blitz of every single concept in, but I said this a couple of times, that first week I called it techniques over tactics. We put in all of our coverages, single-high coverages one day, quarters concepts one day, two-deep concepts ... We took the spring break, then we came back and started blitzing a little bit. Cover One blitzes one day, not all of them, but just a concept. Three-deep zone blitzes. ... The entire package itself isn't in, but I'd say a concept from each segment of the package is in that we can build on as we move forward."