Tennessee football: Vols interior OL could make biggest leap in history

Trey Smith and Brandon Kennedy give Tennessee football’s offensive line got a big boost. The interior unit of the Volunteers could significantly improve.

It’s no secret to anybody that Tennessee football had a historically bad offensive line in 2018. And it’s no secret that improvement is expected this year. But what stands out is just how much improvement could happen on the interior line with more bodies and better development.

When you look at advanced stats tracked by footballoutsiders.com, it’s clear the interior line last year was the biggest problem. The Vols had the worst stuff rate in the nation, which tracks the rate of runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, they were No. 127 on line yards per carry, which tracks 0-3 yard carries to credit the line.

Those stats are solely reflective of the play of the guards and center. Sure, Tennessee football was still outside of the top 100 in pass blocking stats and things more attributed to tackles. But the worst stats were these data points attributed to the interior line.

What caused it? Well, in the opener, Tennessee football lost Brandon Kennedy, its starting center, for the year. So the Vols had to move Ryan Johnson, who had never played center, over to the second most important position on the line.

Jahmir Johnson, who was a three-star junior college transfer last year and didn’t arrive until the fall, had to start every game. Jerome Carvin then had to become a starter as well despite just being a true freshman.

Meanwhile, for the first seven games before he was out, Jeremy Pruitt had Trey Smith, who would be the best guard, over at tackle since he needed help there. Taking all this into account, it’s easy to see why the Vols struggled.

But the personnel changes this offseason have been historic in nature and could mean historic improvement. First off, Kennedy is healthy and back at center. That’s a dramatic improvement at that position. Johnson, meanwhile, can go back to guard, where he is more comfortable. That’s two upgrades right off the bat.

Then there’s Smith. Despite his blood clots, he is back and set to play guard this weekend. That’s because thanks to Jeremy Pruitt’s recruiting, which brought in freshman stars Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright, he has bodies at tackle now despite the loss of Drew Richmond to transfer.

So the historically bad interior line last year has one guy back in his more comfortable role, the true center back, and the best lineman on the team, who was a Freshman All-American playing guard in 2017, back in there. From the outset, you have to assume that the unit will take an amazing leap.

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Carvin, who is now the backup center, Riley Locklear, who has experience in the system, and now K’Rojhn Calbert are all developing as well. This offseason, Calbert has been the standout star. You have to think another year in the pro-style would make everybody better anyway. And Jim Chaney being back only further serves to help that since he’s an offensive line guru.

Speaking of improvements, one of the things that allowed Smith to move back to guard was the development of Marcus Tatum at tackle last year when Smith went out. Tatum, Wright and Morris make for a rotation comfortable enough to move Smith back to the inside, and Chaney and Will Friend have moved Johnson out there too, which is a better spot for him.

Taking all of that into account, Tennessee football’s interior line has a player of elite status back, two more positions filled with players in their natural roles, and three guys who should be significantly better than last year. How can you not expect improvement?

It’s hard to deny the fact that if everything goes as expected, the Vols could make a gigantic leap. Again, they can only go up anyway after having the worst production on the inside in the nation in 2018. But they may not just have improved production. These changes could go from improved to elite, maybe even top 50.

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If that’s the case, then Tennessee football’s interior line will make the biggest improvement any unit has made in history. Making that level of improvement, given the skills elsewhere, could spell huge things for the Vols as well. It may be crazy to think about, but the level of changes happening at UT are crazy in nature. So this is possible.