Tennessee football: Vols issues in the trenches predictable, understandable

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images /

Major targets of blame for Tennessee football’s loss to the Georgia State Panthers are the Volunteers’ offensive and defensive lines.

We didn’t know what to think going in, but it was the worst case scenario for Tennessee football as they opened the season up against the Georgia State Panthers. The root cause of the Vols’ loss goes right to the heart of any team: the line of scrimmage.

Jarrett Guarantano was sacked four times, one time resulting in a fumble, and the Vols failed to convert a 3rd and 1 up 14-7 with a chance to put a nail in Georgia State’s coffin in the first half. That’s all you need to know how bad the offensive line was.

However, the defensive line struggled as well. They got now pressure up front, which is why Dan Ellington and Tra Barnett led a unit that rushed for over 213 yards and executed Shawn Elliott’s game plan perfectly.

Now, it was obvious that the Vols would struggle on these two fronts. But what was not obvious was that it would show this badly in their opener against a Sun Belt team that went just 2-10 the year before.

When you take into account Georgia State’s increased levels of experience and the fundamental issues with Tennessee football, though, it’s easier to see. The Panthers returned almost everybody in the trenches on both sides of the ball. And they have experienced playmakers everywhere.

Meanwhile, the Vols’ only competent unit last year on a consistent basis was the defensive line. Losing all three starters in Alexis Johnson, Shy Tuttle and Kyle Phillips made it bad enough. But they also lost the only other player, Emmit Gooden, who saw any real action up front last year to a season-ending injury. As a result, this team was going to have a lot of work to do up front.

You can point out Michigan Wolverines transfer Aubrey Solomon being cleared to play and the arrival of junior college transfers Savion Williams and Darel Middleton. The coaches may have touted the emergence of Greg Emerson in fall camp. Kurrott Garland, Elijah Simmons and Kingston Harris may all bring some depth.

The fact of the matter is only one of those players, Solomon, had ever played a snap at the FBS level before this year. And there was a reason he transferred out of Michigan, even if he was a five-star recruit.

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It should be noted that the Vols’ defensive end spot struggled too, but LaTrell Bumphus did recover a fumble. And the pressure and containment from there starts with the push up front. Considering the limited experience of Bumphus, John Mincey and Matthew Butler, it’s easy to see why they struggled to contain Ellington. The same is true of the linebackers without Daniel Bituli.

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On the offensive side of the ball, well, last year was a good enough indicator of the issues Tennessee football would face. The unit was historically bad then. Sure, Jeremy Pruitt added five new recruits, including three four-stars and a five-star. But the one three-star was forced into a premature retirement due to injury.

Meanwhile, Drew Richmond transferred out to the USC Trojans. Chance Hall, Nathan Niehaus and Eric Crosby had to join McBride in prematurely retiring. So even with the arrivals of Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright, the line still was undergoing a ton of attrition.

Did anybody expect it to be ready to go in the opener, even with Trey Smith returning? He had to be cleared to play and would have been limited anyway. All of these issues made it abundantly clear the offensive line would struggle, and the one good thing for UT is that you could see them getting a push at times.

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Simply put, while it wasn’t expected to happen against Georgia State, Tennessee football had a tall task to be effective up front in its first game entering Jeremy Pruitt’s second year with all the issues. Between the two, the offensive line was better than the defensive line. But both have to develop a ton for the Vols to be able to compete in the future.