I had wanted to offer Tennessee fans a look at what is creeping into most of our sporting minds right now: What is the 2018 season going to look like for the Vols? But as I examined that question, I realized that there is perhaps one key, one group's development that will more directly impacted the 2018 Vols and the subsequent teams that follow, more than any other. So, let's take a look at this often overlooked group, a key that very few people are mentioning now. It requires a look back to 2017 (sorry), but we need to look back to see where we have come, as well as where we are going.
I want to start my look at what 2018 holds for the Volunteers by examining the group that is most important for them, bar none: The Offensive Line. No group is more directly responsible for consistently winning and losing football games than the offensive line. A well coached, quality group here covers up a multitude of shortcomings elsewhere on offense, as well as helping with issues on defense by allowing a team to control the tempo and pace of the game. A group that has even a single weak link can lead to serious issues on offense, while an entire unit playing poorly is something that no amount of skill position players can fix. These are just the fundamentals and universal truths of football. You don't win at a high level with a bad offensive line group. Unfortunately for Tennessee fans, a look at the Vols under Butch Jones serves as a case study in that particular truth.
I am a die hard, life long Volunteer fan. I've been in since I was 7 years old, watching games and learning the game from my Papaw, who learned the game listening to General Neyland's teams in his dad's barber shop. When I do laundry, I regularly have a load of just Orange clothes. My love for this team runs deep, but I am also going to write from my head, rather than my heart. So, Vol fans, let's just admit something together. Under Butch Jones, the Offensive Line has been bad. I mean really bad. There have been quality players, and the group Jones inherited in year one, coached mostly in their college careers by Sam Pittman, was good, but those guys weren’t products of Jones's system. Even that group took a step back under him. Once that group of guys graduated, it only went downhill.
The Vols recruited highly touted, decorated offensive lineman. Quality players that many national powers offered scholarships to and recruited heavily. They had guys that seemed to burst onto the scene and play extremely well as freshmen. The trouble was, they never seemed to develop, they stayed riddled by injuries, or they simply couldn't get into the rotation.
Many felt that the Offensive Line would be THE strength for the 2017 Volunteers. A quick Google search will show both regional and national writers that had articles talking about how this very experienced unit for the Vols should be a place the team could hang their hats. Many fans and many in the media expected Tennessee to be built around their offensive line, finding success behind them. Then there were some like me that never bought into that at all. I had two primary reasons for not getting behind Tennessee's experienced offensive line as a strength last season. First, most of the guys that had all that experience, had it being bad. They had played in a lot of games, but they hand been pushed around during most of them. Not really the kind of experience you want. Second, the guys with all the experience either weren't on the field, or were guys that Tennessee hoped wouldn't have to play much.
Last season, the ideal starting five for Tennessee up front would have been, from left to right, Richmond, Kendrick, Robertson, Smith, and Hall. This group played not one snap together, but even so, let's look at what this group was. Drew Richmond had started several games and looked much improved at the end of the 2016 campaign, but was still a redshirt sophomore going into his first season as the full time starter at Left Tackle. Brett Kendrick had played all over for the Vols, sometimes as a starter, often as a swing man. His versatility allowed him to help the Vols wherever it was required, although injuries along the front forced him to play much more at Right Tackle last season rather than his natural spot at Guard. Jashon Robertson was a quality, respected interior offensive lineman. He had a mean streak, pass protected well, and could flat maul people in the running game. Still, he had fought many injuries, and all his experience had come at Guard, not at Center where he was playing and starting for the first time in his career, as a senior.
Trey Smith was the number one recruit in the country at any position according to ESPN, but despite all the accolades, he was unproven in the college ranks, yet to play a single snap at that point. Chance Hall was the best returning Offensive Lineman the Volunteers had at their disposal, but the impact tackle missed the entire season with an injury in camp. That, “Experienced,” group came to a True Freshman with 0 starts, a Redshirt Sophomore with 5, a Senior with 0 at the position he opened the season at, and two guys that had started and come off the bench in multiple roles, and one in Hall that had already faced significant injuries. Coleman Thomas had many starts in his career, but after a promising start, he became a liability in his final two years in Knoxville. Jack Jones, a promising player that seemed to always improve the run game when he was on the field, struggled to get into the lineup and was sadly forced to retire prematurely due to health issues.
Venzell Boulware, a talented interior lineman that also left heads scratched as to why he never cracked the rotation, left the program midseason. (Had he waited another week, he would have started the remainder of the season, likely being a key returning lineman for the Vols this year. As it stands, he will redshirt before continuing his career with the Miami Hurricanes. )
I illustrate the experience from last year to point out why I never bought into Tennessee's experienced offensive line being a strength in 2017. I felt like the group had a lot to prove, was very thin on depth, and with the constant struggles up front under Jones, that this group could be a liability again, potentially a fatal weakness with a few, key injuries. I really, really hate being right sometimes.
So, why in an article looking ahead to the 2018 season do I insist on looking back to the 2017 season? Because there is no group on this Volunteer roster that stands to benefit more from Jeremy Pruitt becoming Head Coach of the Vols and changing the scheme than the big guys up front. This group, on the rare occasions they were allowed to line up and go straight downhill at a defense, that showed they could absolutely mash people, particularly in stretches of the 2016 season. This is a group that has a significant amount of highly touted, highly talented guys still on the roster.
After years of watch Butch Jones run his offensive system, it became clear that he struggled enormously with developing offensive lineman at all. He also failed to utilize the talents of the guys he had in that group. Under Jeremy Pruitt, Tyson Helton, and Will Friend, I firmly believe that those trends are about to change. I am excited to see this group in a system that allows them to get after the guys across from them, with coaches that are focused on developing them as players, sharpening their skills, and employing a scheme to get the most out of them. I actually feel better about our offensive line group than I have in about five seasons. While depth is still an issue, I think that this group could actually be a strength for the 2018 Vols.
Drew Richmond was a five star recruit for Tennessee, a guy that ticked all the boxes of a pure left tackle. He redshirted a season to get bigger and stronger before starting to open the 2016 season at left tackle. He lost the job after some struggles, but regained the job of starter for the end of the season, playing much better. The hopes for Richmond we’re high as a redshirt sophomore in 2017, but he failed to reach what many had expected of him. That being said, Richmond was still a young player, starting at left tackle in the SEC, no small feat. He also did son while playing on an offensive line that was atrocious for significant parts of the season. It didn’t matter how well Richmond did his job if two other guys completely busted on their assignments.
Richmond struggled at times against exceptional pass rushers, particularly against speed rushers, but this also wasn't solely on his shoulders. Schematically, Butch Jones and Larry Scott stubbornly refused to give Richmond help, even in obvious passing downs. He was rarely given a tight end to help chip on a defensive end, or a running back staying in to help. He was regularly left on an island in situations where everyone in the stadium knew a pass was coming.
Add to that the tendency of some of the Vols' inexperienced quarterbacks holding the ball too long, and that is a tall order for any left tackle. Richmond, most of the time, was solid, not spectacular, but rock solid as a left tackle in his first full tour of the SEC as the starter at that position. I think too many fans forget how young Richmond still was as a player, particularly in a position that physical age and strength make a huge difference for. Drew Richmond has every chance this season to take that next step and live up to the hype. There may be no player that can benefit more from Tyson Helton's pro style system and Will Friend's coaching than Richmond. This young man was a solid starter in a situation that had plenty stacked against him. If he takes a step forward with this new staff, in this new scheme, I can see a serious, breakout season for Richmond where he can garner some national attention.
If he is able to return from his knee injury, I think that the decorated Chance Hall may slide inside to Left Guard. Coach Pruitt has talked about wanting bigger guys, and Hall is certainly a guy with plenty of size and strength. After multiple knee injuries, I have concerns about Hall's lateral movement if he were to return to his previous position at offensive tackle. Still, Hall is an extremely talented offensive lineman when healthy, far too good a player, with proven, SEC success, not to be in the starting five.
That's why I think he makes so much sense at Guard. Inside, he won't be under as much pressure to excel with his lateral movement, where his knee could hinder him. In a phone booth situation, where Hall can simply square up on his man, he is a mauling run blocker, which could be devastating on the interior of Tennessee's line if he remains healthy.
Provided he is healthy (and at the time of writing all indications are that he will be ready to play when the season opens),
Trey Smith is the best offensive lineman Tennessee has. For that matter, Smith is one of the best offensive lineman in the nation, and the massive sophomore from Jackson is quite possibly the best player on Jeremy Pruitt's roster. Smith lived up to all the hype and then some last season, and despite some off season health concerns, there is no reason to suspect Smith will be anything less than outstanding in 2018. The big question for Smith is, where does he play? Smith was recruited to Tennessee, and by everyone in the country, to eventually work into being a Left Tackle. While he did play that position the end of last season, after injuries ravaged the Tennessee line, I don't think Smith opens at Left Tackle for the Vols.
This has nothing to do with Smith's skill, and more with Tennessee trying to get their best five on the field together. The Vols have options at Left Tackle in Richmond, Hall, Smith, and Marcus Tatum, who have all started games there. Jahmir Johnson, a JUCO addition in the 2018 class, as well as true freshman from Memphis Jerome Carvin, also have potential to factor into the tackle discussion. Richmond, Tatum, and Johnson all appear to be pure tackles, while Smith, Hall, and Carvin are also capable of excelling at Guard as well. I think depth and personnel may keep Trey Smith at Guard for the Vols for another season, but that is far from a knock on him. Smith is a team first player that can absolutely demolish defenders wherever he lines up, be it at Guard or either tackle position.
I am betting on Jahmir Johnson to win the right tackle job, which would keep Smith at Right Guard, however, should the coaches prefer Jerome Carvin, expect to see Smith start at right tackle, with Carvin sliding into his old spot at right guard, giving the Vols a right side of the line made up from the west side of the state.
Here we come to the aforementioned Carvin and Johnson. These two additions to the 2018 class figure to make immediate impacts for Tennessee this season. My expectation is to see Johnson win one of the tackle jobs, most likely at right tackle. Johnson is a bit lean for an SEC tackle, but he is very strong and very quick for his size. He's a very smooth athlete and he is a sound run blocker. He also excels when asked to get out in space and block for screen passes. His age and experience at the JUCO level mean he is more likely to be ready to plug in immediately. I also can’t imagine Pruitt extending an offer to a JUCO lineman unless he felt and expected him to contribute right away.
Carvin may not start this season for Tennessee, but his skill set and versatility means he will see the field plenty if healthy. Carvin is capable of plugging in at guard or tackle for the Vols, and to be a quality contributor at any of those positions. That versatility should make him almost a sixth man type player for Tennessee, that is, unless he wins one of the positions along the line as a starter, which would shock no one. Carvin has good size, good feet, and the kind of nasty attitude on the field that you love to see from a lineman. I think Carvin's best shot to start against West Virginia would be by showing he can absolutely shine at right guard immediately, allowing Trey Smith to go to right tackle. Jerome Carvin is going to be a starter for the Vols for a long time, it is just a matter of at what position and when he breaks into the lineup.
Behind these guys, Tennessee's depth on the offensive line gets razor thin. This is a group that cannot withstand a multitude of injuries again, although they are in better shape than in recent seasons. Only Marcus Tatum has significant starting experience among the reserves, and his time in that role highlighted the development he still required. That said, this staff seems to focus on that development, so Tatum could grow into a greater asset for these Vols with another off season under his belt. Several players redshirted last season that should be in a position to help the interior of Tennessee's line with depth this year, though the staff would prefer they get to develop another year before being pressed into service as starters.
The final piece of this puzzle for the Vols up front could come in the strange case of Brandon Kennedy. Kennedy is a graduate transfer that will be eligible to play in the 2018 season as a redshirt junior. Kennedy has been Alabama's backup center, but has started games for the Tide during his time in Tuscaloosa before being injured last season. Kennedy graduated early from Alabama, and wanted to transfer to either Auburn or Tennessee, both schools that Nick Satan (no, no, I meant to spell it that way), would not grant him a release to, citing an SEC rule he had used with Grad Tansfers in the past. It looked like this may be the end of Kennedy's transfer within the SEC, however the SEC ruled at their meetings in Destin that Grad Transfers were not subject to restrictions in where they continued their careers from the schools they had graduated from.
Now that the rule changes get has gone on the books, it would appear Kennedy should be free to attend whatever school he chooses, and at the time of writing, he is considered a heavy Tennessee lean. Should Kennedy decide to join the Vols, he would almost certainly become the primary Center for the Vols, and the overwhelming favorite to start in that position in Charlotte against the Mountaineers.
Under a new coach, playing in a new scheme, getting quality development, and with talented players remaining as well as being added, I feel better about the offensive line for the Volunteers right now than I have in many seasons. This won't be a light switch difference, but this is a group that, if they can remain healthy, is capable of shocking people, particularly if the Vols can secure the addition of Kennedy. Quality depth is still a concern, Center is a concern, and this group cannot weather multiple, significant injuries and remain highly effective, but this group has a mix of proven, quality players with some nice additions.
These Vols may still face some issues against teams with an elite pass rush, particularly in obvious passing downs, but when I put on the tape, I feel very comfortable that I Helton's downhill, attacking run scheme, this line can really impose their will on teams. Add explosive backs like Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan to that recipe, and these Volunteers can develop an identity as a hard nosed, physical, tough football team that can be efficient and control the tempo of games, precisely the identity Jeremy Pruitt has talked about wanting to build on Rocky Top.
I'm writing with my head, not my heart, and I still think, for the first time in a long time, that these Volunteers could end up leaning on their offensive line as one of their biggest strengths. That would be one of the most drastic turnarounds in the college football landscape in 2018, and even as a realist, if they stay reasonably healthy, I can see it happening. That bodes well for the Volunteers in 2018 and for the long term health and success of the program. It may not be pretty, and it may not be sexy, but a good line is a great barometer of the health of a football program, and that reading could be favorable for Tennessee for the first time in long time this fall. Besides, football isn't about being sexy, it is about hitting the other guy in the mouth, and I am ecstatic to see Tennessee getting back to that.