Tennessee coach Butch Jones yells to his squad during spring football practice March 8 in Knoxville. (AP Photo)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee welcomes the challenge of replacing all five starters from an offensive line that featured four likely draft picks.
"I think it's really driving everybody," junior center Mack Crowder said.
Tennessee football coach Butch Jones calls Crowder a leader of this line, which faces perhaps the toughest task of any position group this spring. The offensive line was Tennessee's greatest strength last fall. Now it's one of the team's biggest concerns.
Junior guard Kyler Kerbyson said the linemen are "definitely playing with a chip on our shoulder" because of the skepticism surrounding how well they can take over for last year's starters.
"We thought we were just as good as those guys," Kerbyson said. "If you don't have that mind-set, you can't really go out there and perform like you want to."
Their predecessors set a lofty standard.
Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, Ja'Wuan James, James Stone, Zach Fulton and Alex Bullard combined to start 177 games. Tennessee's offensive line allowed 23 sacks over the last two seasons, the lowest total of any Southeastern Conference program over that stretch. Last year, the Vols rushed for 2,261 yards, their highest total since 2004.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said in a teleconference last week that he projects Richardson as a second-round pick and James as a second- or third-round selection, with Fulton a potential mid-round choice and Stone a probable late-rounder. Kiper said Bullard also could get selected but more likely would be a free agent.
Their departures leave Crowder and junior guard Marcus Jackson as the only Tennessee offensive linemen with any starting experience. Jackson started five games in 2011. Crowder made one start last year.
"Obviously there are a lot of things technically and fundamentally we need to improve on," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "That's why it's spring practice and all that. But their overall approach has been good. From my standpoint, I can sleep comfortably because I know they're coming every day. I enjoy walking in the room and seeing them, knowing we're ready to attack the day."
Jackson, Crowder and Kerbyson have worked together for years, even though it was during practices rather than in games. Now they're ready to show what they learned.
"There's no looking back," Crowder said. "I'm finally where I want to be. Now it's time to step up and take leadership, just get in there, lead the guys and show everybody that I'm ready to play. Marcus and Kyle are the same way. We're ready to take this thing on full force."
The Vols' biggest concern is at tackle, where Richardson and James earned second-team All-SEC honors last season. Their likely replacements are Division I newcomers. Thus far in spring practice, Garden City (Kan.) Community College transfer Dontavius Blair has worked as the first-team left tackle and freshman Coleman Thomas has been the main right tackle.
Thomas is a versatile athlete who played football, basketball and baseball at Fort Chiswell High in Max Meadows, Va. Blair was a consensus four-star recruit. But they have plenty to learn before Tennessee's Aug. 30 opener against Utah State.
That inexperience explains why Jones calls the line's development a "work in progress" so far.
"It takes time to build that consistency, that chemistry," Jones said. "We're starting a young man who should be a senior in high school right now at right tackle. We're starting another individual who just got here in Blair at left tackle. So we have some individuals playing for the first time, playing at this level. So you're going to go through the growing pains. But I like (that) they've had a workmanlike approach to every single day."comments powered by Disqus