Tennessee’s offensive line will be one of major deciding factors this fall. If the Vols are good up front, the Vols could have a surprisingly good season. If the Vols are as bad as they look during spring camp, well, it’s going to be a very long season for UT fans. It’s going to take some good fortune to make that unit a team strength – or at least not a major weakness.
UT’s offensive line struggled mightily in spring practice. That’s a scary thought considering the Vols will face much better competition this fall then when they were facing themselves.
Here are five things that need to happen for Tennessee to have for the Vols to be good — or at least serviceable — up front on offense this season.
1. Trey Smith has to Trey Smith again
Smith was a dominating force last season. He started all 12 games as a freshman and garnered national attention as one of the most physical offensive linemen in the SEC. That’s not easy to do.
Smith missed spring practice with blood clots in his lungs. He appears to be nearly back to full health, according to Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt in his preseason press conference. Smith will participate in preseason practice. That’s a start. However, Smith will be limited. He’ll be held out of full contact for the first two weeks until he completes his coagulation medication.
Smith’s value is also his versatility. Pruitt said Smith could play guard or tackle depending on where he’s most needed. The Vols need a healthy Smith in the lineup as much as any other player on their roster.
2. Drew Richmond has to step up
Richmond (above) has had two years to learn how to play left tackle after only playing right tackle in high school. It has been a massive transition and one not to be taken lightly. Every step is different. Every hand placement is different. Richmond has worked hard. It’s time for the once highly-rated prospect to show he’s got his “new” position perfected.
3. Brandon Kennedy has to bring some Bama to the Vols
Alabama graduate transfer Brandon Kennedy knows what winning looks like. He’ll be asked to be a leader at center this season when it comes to shifts and line calls. So far, he has earned praise from his teammate.
With so much youth on Tennessee’s two-deep depth chart, Kennedy’s age gives him the benefit of having more strength and fundamental awareness than most of his teammates.
4. Someone has to emerge
For those who follow UT football closely, the aforementioned names are well known. After that, there’s not much star power nor underclassmen who fit Pruitt’s power-football style. It’s been well noted that former UT coach Butch Jones recruited lighter, quicker offensive linemen. Pruitt wants road graters.
Enter sophomores Riley Locklear (6-5, 295) and Ryan Johnson (6-6, 300). Both have the size that Pruitt is looking for. It might take Johnson a bit longer to be a starter, but he can provide depth soon. Fellow sophomore Marcus Tatum has also molded himself into a Pruitt-style player despite the fact that he was just 260 pounds (or less) when he committed to Jones.
5. Tennessee has to stay healthy
The Vols suffered a tremendous amount of injuries under Jones. Will a new strength and conditioning program help? It better. Tennessee doesn’t have the depth on the line to withstand a rash of injuries. The Vols could use a little luck as well.
The Vols have already gotten somewhat healthier during the offseason. Smith should be back as mentioned and Chance Hall has decided to give football another try after injuries almost forced him to end his career.
Frankly, there’s reason for optimism surrounding UT’s offensive line headed into preseason camp. That didn’t seem as if it would be the case just a few short months ago.