Can O-line carry Vols?

When star quarterback Tony Robinson suffered a season-ending injury midway through 1985, a veteran offensive line carried Tennessee the rest of the way to an SEC title and a 9-1-2 finish.

When the Vols had to rely on freshman QBs Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer in 2004, a veteran offensive line made 1,000-yard rushers out of Gerald Riggs and Cedric Houston in guiding UT to a 10-3 record.

As the 2009 season approaches, Tennessee again hopes that a shaky situation at quarterback can be overcome by a veteran offensive line. Four seniors and junior Jarrod Shaw are among the five projected O-line starters. They'll play a key role in determining if '09 turns out to be a 9-3 season, another 5-7 season or somewhere in-between.

Whether the veteran blockers can carry the team – as happened in '85 and '04 – remains to be seen, of course. But offensive coordinator Jim Chaney likes what he has seen of the grizzled veterans to date.

"The senior leadership has really showed up," he said.

That would be senior guards Vladimir Richard and Jacques McClendon, senior left tackle Chris Scott and senior centers Josh McNeil and Cody Sullins.

"Vladimir started off doing fantastic things, then he missed a little time (with a mild concussion) after getting hit in the head," Chaney recalled. "Early on in spring ball I thought Vlad was doing as well as anybody in that offensive line.

"Jacques (McClendon) has really bought into what we're trying to get done, as far as getting to the second level (linebackers) and playing faster. He's really into it, and I'm really pleased with him."

McNeil started 35 games from 2006-2008 but suddenly finds himself bracketed first-team with Sullins, a former walk-on who has never started a college game.

"Josh has played a lot of football in a lot of different systems," Chaney noted. "Now here comes another system to learn at the center position."

Sullins is an honors student who compensates mentally for any shortcomings he might have physically.

"They (centers) are forced to be the brains of the operation a lot of times," Chaney explained. "They're the quarterback of the offensive line. With that comes a lot of questions.

"Cody Sullins is competing his hiney off at that position. Cody's done a lot of things for us that we're real pleased with. He's playing very physical football."

Ultimately, all of Tennessee's blockers need to be physical in 2009. They may well have to carry the offense to the finish line – just as happened in 1985 and 2004.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories