Spring preview: The offensive line
Volquest.com's pre-spring question: Can the Vols find answers/depth at tackle?
The 2015 season was one of redemption for the Vol offensive line. After being much maligned and struggling in 2014, the Vols front five turned in a record setting year in the ground game and they only gave up 23 sacks. That was 20 fewer than they gave up in 2014.
Departed senior Kyler Kerbyson was the anchor and leader of the group that found themselves playing five different line combinations in 13 games last season. It was a group who's entire focus last spring was on being more physical in the run game as mandated by offensive coordinator Mike DeBord.
The mandate paid huge dividends with the largest rushing total since 1951.
The Vols return everyone from a season ago except Kerbyson and Mack Crowder. The expectations for the offense in 2015 are high thanks in large part to what's returning in the trenches.
71: The number of combined starts by the Vols returning offensive linemen
2: The number of times a Vols rushed for over 2500 yards and threw for over 2500 yards in the same season. The only other time it's been done was 1993.
0: The number of career starts the Vols offensive line unit has at the left tackle position.
B+ : The Vols return six linemen who have game starts in the SEC. They were a group who was highly successful last season despite having to deal with injuries. The unit is aided by the a talented group of running backs and a quarterback who's legs are a great weapon. The only unknown with this group is the left tackle position.
Eye towards spring:
All eyes are on one spot and one player this spring and that's Drew Richmond at the left tackle position. Richmond battled through a redshirt year and started his move for the starting position during bowl practice where he was praised by everyone with his work in Knoxville before going to Tampa. Richmond will get all the reps he can handle in spring.
While Richmond will get plenty of reps, right tackle Chance Hall will not get any as he recovers from shoulder surgery, that means Brett Kendrick will get the bulk of the right tackle work. Behind Kendrick and Richmond this spring, things are thin at tackle. The coaching staff would dearly love to find a fourth tackle this spring and not end up with a freshman being the fourth tackle on the depth chart.
On the interior, the competition is deeper with Jack Jones trying to carve himself a spot at guard. Jones could also see time at the center spot as the coaching staff seeks a back up to Coleman Thomas. Venzell Boulware, who redshirted last season, was the first player to lose his black stripe in August and has increased his strength levels. Junior Jashon Robertson will be limited in the spring as the coaching staff will take no chances with him giving lots of snaps for guys like Jones, Boulware, and Charles Mosley who are all looking for playing time.
Tennessee did sign three offensive linemen in the spring, but the hope would be to redshirt all of them.