KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There’s no need to sugarcoat it: Tennessee’s offensive line was a disappointment last season.
The problems were apparent on opening night against Appalachian State, but the inconsistent play continued throughout the season. Then the injuries started to mount, leading to more angst. A great deal of the unit’s confusion appeared to come from a lack of an identity. At the risk of oversimplifying complicated blocking schemes, they blocked one way for Jalen Hurd, another for everybody else.
Fortunately, everybody is turning the page as the Vols prepare to open spring practice March 21.
The unit will be overseen by new offensive line coach Walt Wells, who replaced Don Mahoney. Wells has been in Butch Jones’ program since January 2016 working as an offensive quality control assistant.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to be here and I know it’s more than a dream, it’s reality now and I know what the reality is – we need results,” Wells said during his first media availability as Tennessee’s offensive line coach. “That’s my goal just as much as anybody in this building.”
Wells will have a plethora of depth to work with this spring – a rare luxury during Jones’ tenure on Rocky Top.
Jashon Robertson, Venzell Boulware, Jack Jones and Austin Sanders enter spring as guards on the depth chart. Drew Richmond, Brett Kendrick, Chance Hall, Marcus Tatum, Trey Smith, Nathan Niehaus, Ryan Johnson, Riley Locklear and Devante Brooks provide the group of tackles for Wells, and Cole Thomas enters as the favorite to take over at center.
But there will be some shuffling to find the right mix at certain positions and plug in for reliable depth. Spring is merely the starting point in the reconstruction.
“Settling in on some positions is big, but we’ve got tons of competition, so it’s going be hard to do that in the spring,” Wells said. “But we will try to settle in on some positions and get people in positions to where they can perfect their craft.”
Wells knows that finding the right fit and depth at left tackle and center is the most crucial part of game-planning the offensive line unit. Also with the three-man quarterback race featuring all right-handed signal callers in Quinten Dormady, Jarrett Guarantano and Sheriron Jones is important in finding protection for their blind side.
“Left tackle and center are the most important,” Wells said. “Your center is going to communicate everything. Your left tackle, as long as you’ve got a right-handed quarterback, is protecting the blind side. So you’ve got to make sure those two positions are settled.”
During the media availability, Wells mentioned that he plans to play early enrollee freshman Trey Smith at left tackle this spring. That means Smith and Drew Richmond could start working together as the left tackle depth this spring. Announcing the desire of having Smith at left tackle allows for Brett Kendrick and Chance Hall to start working on depth at right tackle.
Having Hall healthy also gives the unit time to get in sync with each other, something Hall has not really had the opportunity to do.
“Chance has never had just a healthy offseason where he can work out, run, develop his body and get to where he needs to be,” Wells said. “Looking forward to seeing how he progresses when we get out there.”
Last season the line worked well in motion, when pulling guards and the center, which suits Jones’ philosophy. The unit seemed overmatched when opponents started lining up directly over the center with a nose tackle when Hurd tried to make the offense work. This season, there won’t be the need to match a particular player’s skill-set or desires.
Wells can’t wait to get started.
He also notices that his players have “been tested and they’ve been through some of the battles and they know what they are up against.”