If we have one unifying talent as fans of Tennessee football, it is to brutally over-think, fantasize, and worry ourselves sick during the summer. So let’s GET IT ON—before the season comes and burdens us with “facts” and “stats” and “frames of reference.”
In the world of college football, every year brings the departure and arrival of players in starting positions. Far more unusual a task is having to replace every starting player on both the offensive and defensive line. (For the uninformed reader, linemen are the monsters in charge of pushing things.)
How unusual? In all of Division I college football, the challenge of replacing every starting lineman on offense and defense belongs to only one team. Yes, out of 119 teams, only the University of Tennessee must scale that mountain in 2014.
This kind of thing must happen to a lot of major football programs, right?
Vols’ defensive line coach Steve Stripling has been coordinating and coaching offensive and defensive lines for 34 years, since his time at Northern Illinois University in 1980. And right now he sounds a bit worried.
“In my career, this is the biggest rebuild,” says Stripling, who is heading into his second year in Knoxville. “None of my rebuilds compares and you hope this never happens. You hope it never happens.”
However, the coach is quick to point out that rising senior Jordan Williams saw legitimate action on the defensive line in all 12 games last year. Sophomore Corey Vereen was in nine of those games.
“I’m excited about the opportunity of these young guys to get in there and show what they can do,” Stripling says, though he was measured in his assessment of the camp standout, freshman defensive lineman Derek Barnett, saying “‘Boy Wonder’ has a long way to go.”
What this freshness on the defensive line means for the Vols is that, in the SEC, which is known for both size and speed, Tennessee runs the risk of being constantly vulnerable to ground attacks, especially from the east, by elusive backs like Georgia’s Todd Gurley and South Carolina’s Mike Davis. Even worse news, the offensive lines around the SEC returned an average of around 1,000 pounds of experienced starting linemen.
On the other side of the ball, the concerns are a bit more vivid, as the Vol offensive line lost five NFL-caliber players but only brought in three recruits. The entire offensive line has only started a collective six games, five of those belonging to Marcus Jackson, who returns to action after redshirting in 2013.
The widespread assumption that the offensive line will be Tennessee’s weakest spot doesn’t faze rising redshirt junior Kyler Kerbyson. “I don’t take it personal,” the 6-foot-4-inch, 304-pound Kerbyson says. “I actually like that people think we’re the weakest part of the team. It keeps me motivated.”
That feeling seems to be consistent throughout this brand new O line. Players describe both a newfound chip on their shoulders, inspired by their detractors, but also a chemistry formed during their time together as reserves.
It will help that they are joined by Coleman Thomas, a giant freshman (6 feet 6 inches tall and 310 pounds) who has been taking reps with the first-team offense since he arrived on campus in the spring. Like so much of the team, Thomas is a big talent with no experience.
Those of us who choose to drink from the bottom of the orange Kool-Aid will, until proven wrong, look ourselves in the mirror and say, “Who cares about experience?!”
Answer: everybody else.
Rivals such as Florida and Georgia, though lacking some depth, will be returning almost their entire defenses, largely comprised of juniors and seniors. Conversely, opponents like South Carolina and Alabama (for what it’s worth) will be overhauling most of their defense, though still not as thoroughly as Tennessee.
The stage is set for a legendary effort by the big Volunteer underdogs, or inexperience could force Butch Jones and his coaching comrades to get very creative, which is a nice way of saying that it could be big trouble when Tennessee gets into the meat of the SEC schedule.
Wil Wright has been attending Tennessee home games ever since he was swaddled in blankets. Since then, he “opened the T” as a member of the Pride of the Southland Marching Band during the undefeated 1998 season. More recently, he’s been a contributing sports writer to local publications, not to mention making a living as a successful musician. Go to orange.metropulse.com for more orange coverage and commentary!