Tennessee has two front lines to completely rebuild. It’s unlikely that any major program in the nation has to face that challenge.
The Vols will need to find starters on the offensive and defensive line. They’ll also need to find depth, especially on the offensive line where the Vols lost a highly touted group.
“The guys before us; they were prided on their athleticism and being so big.” junior Kyler Kerbyson said following Tuesday’s first practice in full pads. “We’re smaller and less athletic than them, so we pride ourselves on working harder.”
Kerbyson, who is from Knoxville, has been a part of the UT’s program long enough where he should be able to contribute.
“(Kyler) has worked exceptionally hard and he has a great opportunity,” head coach Butch Jones said. “Now he has to take advantage of it, but where he is at in one year’s time is remarkable.”
Kerbyson knows this is his first real opportunity. Growing up in the shadow of Neyland Stadium likely adds some pressure.
“It’s been very exciting,” Kerbyson said. “I’ve been waiting three years now. I got redshirted my first year. I’ve been waiting three years now to get on the field.”
As for the defensive line, sophomore Danny O’Brien will be expected to contribute – at least as a backup. After seeing the field often last season, O’Brien may get the chance to start this season.
“Really I think I got the jitters out and I showed myself in my head that gave me confidence that I can go out there and make plays,” O’Brien said. “It just kept driving me to go out this year and make even more plays but the biggest thing is getting those first snaps in Neyland Stadium and away stadiums, crazy SEC stadiums. I just got the jitters out and it helped me move on.”
An improved off-season workout program should help UT’s linemen. By all accounts, the Vols are stronger than they were last spring. ”
We’ve come into the offseason with such a mindset,” Kerybyson said. “All of us haven’t gotten a chance to play yet. This is our first year, so we take it with so much pride that it’s our first year to come out here and do something.”
As for UT’s offensive linemen, they’ll be expected to move much faster than their predecessors. While the Vols’ offense moved faster than before, it will be expected to move even faster this year. ”
A lot faster,” Kerbyson said. “Coach Jones expects a lot because it’s the second year. First year, everybody is getting used to it, but we’ve been here a whole year together. We’ve been working together for a whole year together. He has high expectations for us. We’re going as fast as possible every play.”
Once again, UT’s coaches are emphasizing making impact plays on defense. That was the case last season during spring camp as well. Like last year, linebacker A.J. Johnson is at the center of the discussions. Johnson led the Vols with 106 tackles but had only 8 1/2 behind the line of scrimmage. Jones wants Johnson to make more tackles for loss. UT’s head coach also wants Johnson, who decided to return for his final year of eligibility, to be more vocal – as was asked of him last season. “It all starts with impacting the quarterback and stopping the run,” Jones said. “And that is what we talk about with A.J…AJ has to demand upfront, with our front guys. So much is predicated on being able to generate a pass rush with a four-man front. When you have to bring five and six man pressures, that really puts the back end of your defense in not favorable matchups in situations.”
Devrin Young continues to see time at running back and receiver. The senior only played receiver last season but with a shortage of tailbacks, Young could be an option out of the backfield. “I just wanted to hit the weight room hard and get my body ready,” Young said of the offseason. “Make it as durable as possible. Just get my mind ready to help the team any way I can.” When asked about how comfortable he is playing running back, Young said, “My whole point is that I just want to help the team and whichever way the coaches want to try and get me the ball, whether it be in the backfield or on the perimeter, then I will take it and run with it.”
Tightening the Screws
Jones had high praise for freshman Daniel Helm. The tight end enrolled at UT in January. “The one individual that I thought really did some good things today was Daniel Helm,” Jones said . “He made some big plays, in a scrimmage situation, in some team settings, I thought he took great strides in moving forward.” The 6-foot-4, 232-pound tight end was named the No. 1 tight end in the nation by Rivals.com. He caught 35 touchdowns during his high school career at Chatham (Ill.) Glenwood.
Jason Croom has been impressive in the first three practices of the season. He seems rehabilitated from the broken collarbone he suffered last season. He’ll need to be health with more incoming competition at the receiver position. “We have more depth and much more competitiveness,” Croom said. “We need competition. That’s what pushes everybody to be the best they can…I’m watching film myself, watching bigger receivers to see how they use their body and go use it myself. You have to improve. You can’t stay the same.”