Let’s continue the series with a look at the Tennessee offensive line depth chart exiting spring with a prediction of what to expect this September.
Spring practice — like most all the springs before of the Butch Jones era — didn’t tell us much. But after what we saw and read, we can make some prognostications about what we may see, or at least expect to see, once fall practice starts. So, over the course of the next couple of weeks, I’m going to break down position-by-position what we saw, what we read and what I’ve heard about to project who’s gonna play where come opening weekend against Georgia Tech.
We’ll continue this series with our look at the offensive line
The addition of Walt Wells inserted into the coaching equation for the Vols replacing Don Mahoney already has paid massive dividends on the recruiting trail. But just how far the offensive line can take Tennessee may wind up being the difference in how long this coaching regime lasts in Knoxville.
It’s that big of a deal.
Everybody wants to talk about the quarterback battle — and rightfully so — but the bottom line is UT must have MUCH better offensive line play than it has experienced in the Butch Jones era in order to be successful offensively in the post-Joshua Dobbs era. After all, the former UT dual-threat quarterback oftentimes made up for mistakes up front. That won’t be the case if Quinten Dormady wins the job because he’s more of a traditional drop-back passer, and it may not happen if Jarrett Guarantano and his inexperience win the job, either.
That’s why the Tennessee offensive line, which jokes about spending life in the shadows on social media, needs to step onto center stage in 2017.
This spring showed glimpses of reasons to be excited as UT blends a ton of talent with a wealth of experience. It may not even be out of the realm of possibility to see an upperclassman redshirt to provide depth down the road. Tennessee’s potential up front is that strong. But potential and production, as 2016 proved in every area of the Vols, are two different things. UT has a stable of versatile linemen, so where they wind up is anybody’s guess. But where’s the fun in that? Let’s take a guess at where they’ll fall when everything sorts itself out.
Starting at the all-important left tackle position, the job is redshirt sophomore Drew Richmond’s to lose. The former highly touted recruit suffered an up-and-down season in ’16, but he did show some signs of being the player everybody expected coming out of high school in Memphis. With an offseason in Rock Gullickson’s strength & conditioning program, Richmond could take the next step forward. Richmond has a bright future, and he seems poised to take a big step forward after a strong spring. Look for him to beat out redshirt senior Brett Kendrick for the starting job, but Kendrick is a Swiss Army knife type of player who can (and will) help at a variety of positions. If Richmond falters for any reason, Kendrick should step right in, and it would be unwise to count out the fifth-year senior. Again, he’s a guy the Vols would love to have for another season, so his last year on Rocky Top could be spent helping out everywhere. Still, this looks like Richmond’s job to lose after this spring. Don’t sleep on Marcus Tatum getting a shot at this job if Richmond falters and Kendrick is entrenched at the other tackle spot. But it would be great to get Tatum a redshirt season.
At left guard, Kendrick could definitely find a home there, and it would be a viable option for Tennessee if the Vols viewed him as one of the five best linemen, which he certainly was during the spring. This is a position that is as up-in-the-air as any on the team, and that’s not a bad thing. With Jashon Robertson working mostly at center this spring (and looking great doing it) Kendrick may be the guy who slots in here. But I’m going with a bit of a surprise and going with the spring stud, true freshman Trey Smith. The former 5-star prospect and ESPN.com’s top-ranked overall player in the country is almost certainly going to start somewhere. He’s that good. While he’ll get all kinds of looks at right tackle, it may be best for him to start out on the interior where mistakes may not be quite so glaring. Smith is going to be a monster and a Vol great — it’s evident he has the chops to do it — and while his long-term projection is at tackle, he may work his way into the rotation right away at guard.
For the past two years, UT has played Coleman Thomas most of the time at center, but after a rough junior season and an emergency appendectomy this spring, it left the door open for somebody to take over. In a bit of a surprise, veteran Jashon Robertson was that guy, stepping in and looking like a natural. It may be the position where Robertson plays on the next level, and if the Vols and Wells are truly going to go with the five best players, it’s going to be impossible to keep him off the field. The senior from Montgomery Bell Academy will be a starter either at one of the guard spots or at center. The guess here is he slots inside snapping the ball, and UT either plays Thomas behind him or tries to get a redshirt year out of the senior so he can be the man at the position next year once Robertson leaves. That’s a pie-in-the-sky situation that probably won’t come to fruition. But Thomas would easily be the sixth offensive lineman in this scenario, and he’d play a lot regardless.
At right guard, this looks like a two-man battle between junior Jack Jones and redshirt sophomore Venzell Boulware. Both of those guys are going to start for the Vols in the future, and one of them will win the battle this year. Boulware may be the most talented interior lineman UT has (with the exception of Smith, who is best-suited for tackle). But Jones is a technician with a mean streak and tons of strength. Rather than go home for mini-term, he stuck in Knoxville to get some extra reps with Gullickson, sensing this may be his year to make a major move. Look for it to pay major dividends for the Vols and for himself as he beats Boulware out for the gig. But Venzell is uber-talented, and he’ll start at least a couple of games somewhere this year. That’s the good thing about UT’s offensive line: there are a lot of players who can play a lot of spots and play them well.
Finally, at right tackle, it’s anybody’s guess who’ll step in. But if we’re going to play Smith on the inside, that means Kendrick will fit in here as the starter. Why? Because Kendrick has played the position before, and he’s a veteran with a ton of experience. So, you put him there where he’s comfortable and play Smith on the inside right away. Of course, the Vols may decide Smith has to play tackle, in which case, Kendrick could play at guard where he’s worked in practice during his career but never in a game. In case you haven’t noticed by now, the options UT has are limitless.
So, that leaves the other guys, and there is no shortage of talent. First, there’s Chance Hall, who simply hasn’t been able to stay fully healthy since a promising freshman season. If Hall regains the talent, strength and consistency that made him a young force, he’s a guy who could bust the starting lineup wide-open. There’s no reason to give up on a talent like him yet, and Hall has a lot of football left to be played in Knoxville. Surely, some of that is going to be in the starting rotation. Another viable option who could really benefit from a redshirt year after playing as a true freshman a season ago is Marcus Tatum. The Florida product in no way looked out-of-place as a fill-in tackle a season ago despite being woefully undersized. If the Vols can get away with redshirting him this season, he may wind up being a multi-year starter in the future. He’s a guy a lot of top-notch teams wanted in the recruiting process, and he’s a high-upside player who essentially wasted a season a year ago that he needs to get back.
Others who can work their way into the rotation but are currently on the outside looking in for playing time are redshirt freshman Ryan Johnson from Brentwood who is 6’6″, 275 pounds and looks like a prototypical tackle prospect in the future. Of course, that means he probably will play guard. Tennessee doesn’t always play guys where they’re expected to go, and with so many tackle bodies on the exterior of the line, Johnson may have a quicker path to playing time inside. Nathan Niehaus filled out his thin frame nicely during his redshirt year, putting on some 40 pounds, and he’s now 6’6″, 295 pounds. The great thing about the Cincinnati tackle prospect is the Vols can bring him along slowly because they don’t need him right now. He’s somebody who could get some seasoning, strength and work his way into the rotation this year or next. Devante Brooks moved over from tight end after two bad knee injuries kept him from having the athleticism necessary to catch balls in the SEC, and though he’s currently just 255 pounds, he’s an intriguing prospect who may wind up being a worthwhile project as a tackle. Finally, freshman Riley Locklear was the staff’s top-rated center prospect in the 2017 recruiting class, and the Vols are thrilled to have the West Virginia product in the fray. He’s a guy who could take over snapping the ball once Robertson and Thomas are gone.
LT – Drew Richmond, Brett Kendrick, Marcus Tatum, Nathan Niehaus
LG – Trey Smith, Jashon Robertson, Ryan Johnson
C – Jashon Robertson, Coleman Thomas, Riley Locklear
RG – Jack Jones, Venzell Boulware, Ryan Johnson
RT – Brett Kendrick, Chance Hall, Trey Smith, Devante Brooks
** NOTE: Coleman Thomas can play guard or tackle, too.