Tennessee football position preview: Offensive line starting anew, but Marcus Jackson could help ease transition

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The first in a series of position-by-position reviews of the Tennessee football team with an eye toward the start of spring practice in three months.

Antonio “Tiny” Richardson opted to leave early for the NFL (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — It’s appropriate to begin our series of offseason previews with the offensive line. Perhaps no other position will have a bigger impact on the Vols’ success or failure in 2014.

In 2013, the Vols not only had five experienced starters, but they had five players who had worked together as a unit for at least two years.

The Vols are losing all five starters, who accounted for roughly 92 percent of all snaps taken this year. The potential replacements are green.

The offense might not have been as prolific as hoped, but the line helped power a running game that kept UT afloat when other options failed. At least three of the linemen will be in the NFL next year.

The line was also remarkably durable. Ja’Wuan James set records for longevity. None of this teammates missed any significant time this year.

As you can see from the chart below, the Vols are replacing a lot of starts and a lot of combined experience.

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Who does that leave for 2014? Check out the graph below. One of positive results of the stacked line in 2013 was that it gave Marcus Jackson the chance to take a redshirt season. He still has two years of eligibility remaining and will help anchor the line in 2014 — and, coaches hope, in 2015, too.

The experience is extremely limited after Jackson. Mack Crowder, Kyler Kerbyson and Dylan Wiesman got some work this year. Austin Sanders and Brett Kendrick took redshirts. Marques Pair did some good things in the spring, but might not have the talent to push for a starting job in his final year.

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The Vols will have at least four newcomers arriving. (It will probably be 2015 before Tennessee reaches its ideal numbers on the offensive line).  Dontavius Blair is expected to be a starter. If he doesn’t win a starting tackle job, it will be a disappointment — for him and the coaches who recruited him.

The other three freshmen will also have a chance to compete for meaningful snaps, although I expect at least one will probably redshirt. In a perfect world, all three would redshirt, but the Vols don’t have that luxury. Some think Charles Mosley could eventually end up on the offensive line, but he’ll at least begin this spring on defense.

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The chart above is merely a projection. I hesitated to include any years beyond 2014, because it’s so speculative. But it does offer a good long-range view of the Vols’ depth or weaknesses at any given position.

There are eight months until the start of the 2014 season and plenty of long practices to go. Nothing is set in stone, especially at a unit with no returning starters. But if I had to guess, I’d say juniors Crowder, Jackson and Kerbyson would have the first chance to win starting jobs at center, guard and tackle, respectively. Blair could win the other tackle job. By virtue of playing in 2013, Wiesman gets a slight nod for the final guard spot, but I think someone like Coleman Thomas could push him with a strong spring and summer.

Over the long-term, the Vols must rapidly replenish their already low numbers. I could see offensive line being a high priority in 2015, 2016 and even 2017 until they get to their magic number — 15 linemen on the roster.

A note on this series: As National Signing Day approaches, we’ll review each of Tennessee’s positions with an eye toward spring football in 2014. The spreadsheets will be updated as players commit, sign, enroll or depart.

A note on the statistics: The snap count shown in the first graphic includes only offensive snaps. It does not count special teams. The statistics are unofficial and come from our snap-by-snap database. “YPP” is yards per play, or simply the number of yards Tennessee gained while the player was on the field, divided by the player’s total snaps. “Adjusted YPP” adjusts the average for various factors, including game, situation, formation, down, distance and position. “Impact factor” is the degree to which a player’s YPP outperformed the average YPP for a player in a similar situation. A factor of 100 is average; above that is better, lower is worse. Adjusted YPP and Impact Factor should be viewed as “interesting” stats more than terribly relevant ones. Someone who plays every snap will, by definition, have an Impact Factor of 100. On the other end, the small sample size of many reserves means just one or two plays can significantly shift their score.