With less than 50 days until a sea of orange floods Neyland Stadium for Tennessee’s season opener versus Appalachian Sate, depth-chart curiosity looms. One specific area with question marks is the offensive line.
Between injuries to Marcus Jackson, Brett Kendrick and Jashon Robertson, the staff was forced to juggle the lineup a year ago, including putting true freshmen such as Chance Hall and Jack Jones on the field against the likes of Georgia and Alabama.
Gone now are left guard Mack Crowder and left tackle Kyler Kerbyson, who started all 13 games and helped lead the Volunteers to an average of 422.3 yards per game and 223.7 rushing yards per game, which was second in the SEC in 2015.
The left-tackle vacancy is cause for concern as fourth-year starting quarterback Joshua Dobbs needs someone guarding his blindside. Former Scout four-star prospect Drew Richmond could be the man for the job.
The 6-foot-5, 301-pounder came to Rocky Top as a right tackle and redshirted last fall, using that time to improve in areas like consistency and learning to study his opponent both physically and mentally. The coaching staff got Richmond reps on the left side, and even early on, offensive coordinator Mike DeBord liked what he had saw. Kerbyson was happy to mentor him as the transition from right to left was not an easy process.
“Kyler was always there for me, helping me,” Richmond said this spring. “It was more than football, he made sure my mind was right. Kyler helped me out a lot.”
Also gone is Dontavius Blair, who would have been a fifth-year senior. Blair appeared in 9 games last season, yet did not start in any.
That means Kendrick is Richmond’s primary competition to start at left tackle. The 6-foot-6, 318-pound redshirt junior from Knoxville has seven starts under his belt.
The winner of the left-tackle job will have his hands cut out for him with defensive end talent such as Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, Florida’s Bryan Cox, Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Missouri’s Charles Harris to contain.
Moving inside to guard, the concerns aren’t as great with Jashon Robertson and Dylan Wiesman returning as starters. The junior Robertson started in 10 games last year and sat out against Alabama, South Carolina and North Texas games due to an ankle injury. Wiesman has 15 starts on his résumé and earned Associated Press second-team All-SEC honors last year.
Coleman Thomas is the incumbent at center. The junior started in all 13 games last season and contributed in leading Tennessee to claim the SEC’s second-most rushing yards. Only one of his starts last year was not at center, as he kicked off the Georgia game at right tackle amid Kendrick’s injury, proving that he can be versatile when necessary. Back-up Ray Raulerson transferred to West Virginia, meaning Wiesman is the assumed choice to move over to man the middle if Thomas goes down.
Jones proved himself a capable first-year right guard, meaning he bolsters the depth and could spell a dinged-up starter. The coaching staff was pleased with the former four-star’s performance in his first first nine games.
Jones’ classmate Hall rebounded from a torn Achilles’ tendon suffered in his final season in Roanoke, Virginia, to start seven games at right tackle his first season on Rocky Top after enrolling midyear. Hall appeared in 10 games altogether and was named Scout second-team All-America as well as All-SEC Freshman.
Tennessee signed Ryan Johnson, Nathan Niehaus and Marcus Tatum in February. All three figure to redshirt as they cross-train up and down the offensive front under the guidance of fourth-year assistant coach Don Mahoney.