Offensive line to be 1 of Vols best positions in 2017

Butch Jones says Tennessee's offensive line will be one of the most competitive positions for the Volunteers in 2017. Read about the surge in talent in the trenches.

It doesn’t take an Aerospace Engineering major to understand that football coaches breaking in a green-horned quarterback desire a rushing attack that can alleviate pressure and aid substantially in moving the chains.

Joshua Dobbs’ graduation not only vacates the starting quarterback position at Tennessee but also removes the most prolific rushing quarterback (2,160 rushing yards, 32 rushing touchdowns in 37 career games) in 120 years of Big Orange football.

Tack on that one of the program’s all-time leading rushers and a potential NFL Draft first-round selection in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, respectively, also will be nowhere to be found and the situation could appear to be in dire straights — on paper.

Of Tennessee’s four leading rushers from last fall, only running back John Kelly returns for 2017. The Dobbs-Hurd-Kamara trio netted 1,878 rushing yards and 24 TDs last year. That’s a tremendous amount of production to make up. Oh, and last year’s leading receiver, Josh Malone, declared early for the NFL, too.

On the positive side, the blocking corps that opens holes for ball carriers has ample experience. Former Vols offensive line coach Don Mahoney saw to it that every one of his troops got work up and down the front. That means new O-line coach Walt Wells has as much to work with as what Mahoney inherited for the 2012 season — and likely even more from an overall depth perspective.

“I think the offensive line will be one of our most competitive positions that we have on our football team, which we need that,” Butch Jones said at Monday’s press conference. “That’s the only way you get better. You have to compete every single day.”

After a year on Rocky Top as an offensive quality control coach, Wells isn’t taking over from Ground 0. The offensive terminology isn’t changing, and he has an idea as to the strengths and weaknesses of his bunch.

“It makes it smooth,” Wells said. “It makes it smooth for the kids, smooth for me. You don’t have to question and learn personalities. You kind of already know personalities. But in the same breath, everybody needs a new start. It’s a new role for me and it’s a new role for them with me in that role. We’ve got to get to know each other better on the field because in my past role I was limited in what I could do.”

Brett Kendrick makes up half the Team 121 roster that was majority recruited by Derek Dooley and his staff. The Knoxville native wasn’t highly recruited but provides experience and is the elder statesman to the deepest pool of tackles Tennessee has had in some time. His 19 starts the previous three seasons combined mean a cemented two-deep spot and will be tough to beat out for a starting job even though he is unavailable this spring due to injury.

At the left bookend, Drew Richmond took over at tackle the second Kyler Kerbyson flipped his tassel. He then lost that job until the latter half of the season when he earned it back, starting five times all told. He’s another that figures to be tough to keep off the field.

If not for injuries, Jashon Robertson (34 career starts) would easily be the most experienced returning player on Tennessee’s roster. Wells has his own opinion of Vols blockers, but it’s probably a safe bet that Roberson will be first-team when the Orange & White trot onto the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf against Georgia Tech on Sept. 4.

The other guard spot looks to be hard to determine, which is a good problem for Jones, Wells and new offensive coordinator Larry Scott, who was an offensive lineman himself at South Florida. That competition will be fierce and could carry over to another position. The stance by Jones’ staffs have always — and will continue to be — get the best five on the field. It won’t be simply trying to get the top guard in the lineup.

Chance Hall is a wild card. He was a former Scout three-star prospect that missed his final year of high school football with a torn Achilles’ tendon. He’s since battled injuries from top to bottom and struggled to stay on the field, let alone have time to engineer his body into that of a road grader. If he is healthy and right, it’s hard to imagine a starting lineup without him in it. Jones said Monday that Hall still has not returned to 100 percent, but Hall will practice this spring.

“Getting him back this spring would be big for Chance,” Wells said. “I’ve been here since January (2016) and Chance has never been healthy. He’s always been…I think a year ago it was maybe his upper body, then this past year it was his lower body. So Chance has never had just a healthy offseason where he can just work out, run and develop his body and get to where he needs to. I’m looking forward to see how he progresses when we get out there.” Should Hall get his body right and be considered a top guy, he may get in at right tackle and kick Kendrick inside to guard. Others in strong contention at right guard are Venzell Boulware, Jack Jones and Scout five-star midyear enrollee Trey Smith. Rest assured, if one of these guys is starting, it’s because he earned it.

The position that undoubtedly has more question marks than the other four is center. The top performer there last season is the one lineman that graduated — Dylan Wiesman. The players that may be the best there in the future — Jack Jones and Riley Locklear — may be best served redshirting. That doesn’t sound like lofty praise for Coleman Thomas, who has three years of starter’s experience under his belt. Thomas has his strengths but he has his weaknesses, some of which could be resolved with a more-than-productive offseason under the watchful eye of new strength and conditioning director Rock Gullickson. If Thomas can, for example, place hands on Alabama defensive lineman and 308-pounder Da’Ron Payne (bench presses 545 pounds) and direct him in a way that clears a path for Kelly to score from 2 yards out in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 21, then Tennessee has more of what it’s been waiting on since the Virginian enrolled in January 2014.

Of the 2016 class of incoming offensive linemen, only Marcus Tatum saw game action. Tatum should have played earlier in the season or not played at all, effectively wasting a year of eligibility due to minimal use that didn’t commence until mid-October. However, Tatum may be the greatest combination of athleticism and length that the Vols have had since the late Aaron Douglas converted from tight end for 2009. Staying on the positional conversion front, the forgotten guy last class has been Devanté Brooks, but he has upside at bookend if he can skyrocket his size and strength dimensions in the next year or two.

The other two heralded signees that redshirted alongside Brooks were Ryan Johnson and Nathan Niehaus. Johnson’s future is likely at center/guard but Niehaus is another that will push for a starting spot sooner than some expect.

Brooks, Locklear and soon-to-arrive McMinnville native K’Rojhn Calbert all need time to develop. Wells isn’t a strong supporter of redshirting, so don’t be surprised if no blockers sit out 2017.

“Overall, we want to be a tough, smart, physical unit and that’s where we want to be,” Wells said. “I want to get the most athletic players on the field that know what to do and can get there the quickest, the fastest and most violently. And that’s what we’re looking for.

“Competition is the main thing We’ve got to make sure that we’re getting the best five on the field. We’ve got great competition in our room, and we’ve got great men in our room. I’m looking forward to seeing how they respond to certain situations and competitive situations.”

Practice 1 of Butch Jones’ fifth spring season in Knoxville is Tuesday afternoon.

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