Diehard fans may be tempted to lock themselves in the garage with the car running at this point. It would be wise to resist that urge. Things aren't nearly as dire as they seem. Here's why:
The 2010 offensive line may be less experienced than the 2009 line but it will be more talented. Keep in mind that two '09 starters were walk-ons Cody and Cory Sullins. Neither played enough to break a sweat prior to last fall and both were undersized at 6-1 and 270 pounds. The Sullins boys got by on brains, not brawn, and there were times last fall when their lack of heft was seriously exploited by opposing defenders.
Replacing Cody Sullins at center will be Cody Pope, a 6-6, 290-pound junior. Pope is five inches taller, 20 pounds heavier and decidedly more athletic. It's true that Pope has seen little action to date but he has played roughly as much as Sullins had entering the '09 season.
Replacing Cory Sullins at left guard will be JerQuari Schofield, a 6-6, 331-pound redshirt freshman. Schofield is five inches taller and 61 pounds heavier than the guy he's succeeding, in addition to being light-years ahead athletically. Schofield hasn't played a down at the collegiate level but Sullins had seen only a few snaps of mop-up duty prior to his senior season.
Replacing Jacques McClendon at right guard will be fifth-year senior Jarrod Shaw. At 6-4 and 331 pounds, Shaw is comparable in size to his predecessor. Shaw has three starts entering the 2010 season, whereas McClendon had 13 entering the 2009 season. Although he had been a decorated high school star, McClendon was merely an adequate player at Tennessee. There's no reason to think Shaw can't reach that same level.
Replacing Aaron Douglas at right tackle will be Ja'Wuan James. Douglas was an undersized redshirt freshman (6-6, 280) who switched over from tight end mere months before starting in the Vol O-line. James is an imposing true freshman (6-7, 313) who also will have one spring practice and one fall camp under his belt when he lines up for his college debut. Tennessee teammates rave about James, suggesting he is going to be a stud sooner or later ... probably sooner.
Replacing Chris Scott at left tackle will be a challenge - one that falls to sophomore Dallas Thomas. Scott entered the 2009 season with 26 career starts; Thomas enters the 2010 season with zero. At 6-5 and 295 pounds, Thomas is more athletic and agile than the 6-5, 330-pound Scott. Although he isn't the road grader in run blocking that Scott was, Thomas should be a better pass protector in time. Whether that time arrives in 2010, 2011 or 2012 is the key question.
There's no denying that Tennessee's 2010 offensive line appears terribly suspect on paper. It projects to start one player of each classification - a true freshman, a redshirt freshman, a sophomore, a junior and a senior. Only the senior has any meaningful experience.
Remember, though, that the line that started Tennessee's last 10 games of 2009 didn't look all that imposing on paper, either - consisting of two walk-ons, a redshirt freshman and two scholarship seniors.
That brings us to depth. The '09 line relied on seven players - the five starters, plus Shaw and Vladimir Richard. Surely, the '10 line can develop a couple of decent backups between now and September from among senior Victor Thomas (6-3, 292), sophomore Carson Anderson (6-2, 280), redshirt freshmen Daniel Hood (6-4, 275), Kevin Revis (6-2, 285) and Chase Phillips (6-3, 275).
If not, Tennessee will need immediate help from incoming freshmen Zach Fulton (6-5, 315), James Stone (6-4, 295) and Marquis Pair (6-6, 275). All three looked quite impressive en route to sharing "Outstanding Offensive Lineman" recognition at UT's summer camp last June. Fulton appears college-ready right now, whereas Stone and Pair might need additional weight and strength before they face the rigors of SEC play.
Tennessee head man Derek Dooley admitted at the close of spring practice that the O-linemen probably came farther than any other group.
Position rating: Suspect, but not as bleak as many fans imagine.