Injuries and inconsistency finally forced UT's staff to take the redshirt off of junior tackle Sean Young and move him to left guard in game 4 against Rutgers. Young has held the starting spot over the last four games while Jason Respert, who started the first two games this year and the first three games last year, serves as his back-up.
While instability has been the rule at guard, the other three offensive line positions have remained rock solid with Michael Munoz starting all seven games at left tackle, Will Ofensheulse doing the same at right tackle, as has Scott Wells at center.
Since an offensive line has to work in concert, it's difficult to develop as a unit when every other position along the front is lacking consistency. Add injuries to the equation and the problems are compounded by several degrees.
This is a concept that has been offered before as an explanation for Tennessee's struggles, but it turns out the situation goes beyond a mere shuffling of personnel.
Remember it is common for UT O-linemen to learn more than one position and that helps to overcome injuries by having an experienced hand ready to take on another role in a pinch.
That hasn't happened this year because Tennessee is suffering an immense experience gap across the offensive front. Wells is the Vols most experienced offensive lineman with 30 career starts entering the eighth game of his junior season. Ofenheusle, who is the only senior in the offensive line and UT's tri-captain, has logged 25 career starts. Munoz, who was redshirted last season following knee surgery, has recorded 19 starts with five games left in his sophomore season.
Total the starts up for Tennessee's first team tackles and center and you have a highly respectable 74 career starts or an average of 24.3 starts per position. That1s better than two years starting experience for each player.
However it's quiet a different story when you look at the starting experience at guard, particularly if you take the combination that the Vols have used most often this season. That would be Sean Young and Chavis Smith who have started three of seven games this season at left and right guard, respectively, including the last two games against Georgia and Alabama.
Though Young and Smith are both juniors, they only have 14 career starts collectively. Young has six and Smith has eight. Anthony Herrera, who has 19 career starts, has attempted to fill the gap at both guard positions this season but hasn't been able to remain healthy. Respert has a total of five career starts and has also been slowed by injuries. Even if you add Herrera's experience to the four-guard total, it still just comes to 38 or 9.5 per player. Without Herrera that total is cut in half at 19 for three guards or 55 less than the Vols other three starters in the line.
That's a significant difference and one that hasn't gone unnoticed by opposing defensive coordinators. The Vols offense is constantly being tested in the middle with a variety of stunts and blitzes desgined to confuse blocking assignments. The success of that tactic has created constant pressure up the middle and has forced Clausen into a scrambling mode since game one vs. Wyoming. The interception he threw on third-and-five from the Alabama 6 yard-line last Saturday was the direct result of pressure up the middle which denied him any time to survey the field.
Because grades for offensive linemen are rarely made available, it's difficult to quantify the extent of the experience gap up front, but the performance of the offense this season speaks volumes.
It's also evident in Tennessee1s running game where the Vols have had little success running inside. There's a theory in football that says: if you can't run inside, you can't run outside and if you can't run, you can't pass.
By the way, the experience gap goes beyond the line on offense. Leonard Scott and Tony Brown have a total of 11 career starts for Tennessee while the controversial Kelley Washington has just eight career starts in two seasons. That's 19 starts for Tennessee's top three wide receivers. Compare that total to 26 career starts for Clausen alone at quarterback.
Clausen, Munoz, Scott and Ofenheusle have a combined 100 career starts for Tennessee while the Vols other seven starters against Alabama have a combined total of 51 career starts. That seven-player group includes Jason Witten who has 11 career starts at tight end.
This disparity in experience could help explain how 11 starters can be on the same team, but appear to be on different pages of the play book. The problem is accentuated when the Vols have to make adjustments or Clausen calls an audible.
Sure this doesn't completely explain the depth of Tennessee's offensive woes in 2002, but it's certainly a situation that stands in the way of a solution.