Offensive line hopes to display off-season progress during spring practice

Football players stretch at the beginning of spring practice Tuesday.

Collegiate football programs are in a unique place that they’ve never been. Due to the coronavirus, the college football offseason is on hold.

Recruiting is dead, but more importantly in the short term, players are away from campus and not working as a team. Spring practices around the country have already been canceled, and who knows how long it’ll be until teams return to their perspective campuses.

This will likely make all teams worse whenever play begins, but some teams will be hurt worse than others.

Let’s take a look where the missed time really hurts Tennessee, and where they’re at a good spot with compared to their opponents.

Where the shortened offseason hurts Tennessee

  • Tennessee’s lack of strength and conditioning coach

With players away from campus and their everyday workouts it’s important for them to have a clear leader setting new workouts for them daily, especially considering the unconventional ways the coronavirus is making people workout due to the closure of gyms.

This is why the departure of strength coach Craig Fitzgerald was a huge blow for Tennessee this spring. Fitzgerald was one of the best strength coaches in the nation, and Pruitt had kept Fitzgerald in Knoxville despite both Maryland, his alma mater, and Alabama pursuing him the past two off seasons.

In the end, the Vols wouldn’t lose one of the nation’s highest paid strength coaches to another college but to the NFL as Fitzgerald travels back home to work for the New York Giants.

The timing of his departure almost forces Tennessee to promote from within, which Pruitt is expected to do. It would be too difficult to bring in a coach the players don’t know and force him to work without knowing his players.

This is especially important as all schools will be looking to hit the ground running in strength and conditioning if players are allowed to return to campuses this summer. That would be too difficult to do with a new coach installing new workouts.

  • Unproven receivers

Another challenge for Tennessee in the shortened offseason is the Vols dependence on unproven wide receivers.

Josh Palmer is the Vols only receiver to catch five or more passes a season ago, but the Florida native will be expected to step into the number one receiver role this season.

The Vols aren’t without talent at receiver but it is all talent that’s proven little.

Ramel Keyton will be expected to play a big role in the offense during his sophomore season after catching just four passes a year ago. Georgia transfer DeAngelo Gibbs turned heads on the practice field while ineligible a year ago.

Tennessee signed one of the strongest receiver groups in the country, and the Vols need at least one of four stars Jalil Hyatt, Malachi Wideman or Jimmy Calloway to make an impact as a freshman.

All of Tennessee’s unproven playmakers are going to miss valuable routes on air and seven-on-seven work that they’d normally get in during the summer.

These receivers need to build continuity and trust with Jarrett Guarantano and the rest of the Vols’ quarterback room quickly if Tennessee’s offense wants to hit the ground running in the fall.

Where Tennessee comes out ahead because of the shortened offseason

  • Returning coordinators

For the first time since 2015, Tennessee will return both its offense and defensive coordinator in 2020.

It comes at a perfect time with the shortened offseason. Tennessee’s coaching staff won’t have to worry about implementing new systems over zoom and should be able to hit the ground running in fall practice.

The second year in Jim Chaney’s offense should be beneficial for the Vols’ offensive line as well as Jarrett Guarantano.

Tennessee’s defense made a huge jump last season in the second year of Jeremy Pruitt’s system, and the Vols are hoping to build on even more of that in defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley’s second year in Knoxville.

Some of Tennessee’s conference foes won’t be as lucky as the Vols with returning coordinators as Georgia brought in a new offensive coordinator in Todd Monken while South Carolina pegged Mike Bobo as its new offensive coordinator.

Arkansas and Vanderbilt, Tennessee 2020 opponents, also had changes at coordinator spots this offseason.

It’s not the end all be all but having both of its coordinators return is a plus for Tennessee.

  • Returning quarterback

This is both good and bad for Tennessee, depending on how you look at it. For the fans clamoring for freshman Harrison Bailey this is bad news. The Marietta standout didn’t have spring practice to get work in and learn the playbook.

This will make it nearly impossible for him to unseat redshirt-senior Jarrett Guarantano before the start of the season. Having a returning, fifth year senior starting quarterback is a plus for Tennessee.

Guarantano should have a good grasp of the offense already and should have built some chemistry with the receivers, if the unproven ones, in the last year.

This is a disadvantage for opponents Georgia and Arkansas who brought in transfer quarterbacks this offseason and now have a shortened time to learn and implement the new offense.

Tennessee will also take on new starting quarterbacks against Alabama, Oklahoma and Missouri, but the expected starters aren’t new to the program.

On the other side of it, Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina all return starting quarterbacks.

  • Experience in the line of scrimmage

It’s often said that games are won on the line of scrimmage in the SEC, and the Vols know what they have there on both sides of the ball.

The offensive line returns all five starters including leaders Brandon Kennedy and Trey Smith. Georgia transfer Cade Mays should compete with Jerome Carvin for the right guard spot, and K’Rojhn Calbert and Darnell Wright will battle for the right tackle spot.

There is depth and competition on Tennessee’s offensive line, and if someone doesn’t come back to campus in shape, the Vols should have options to replace them. This should also help Tennessee find its best five and build continuity across the line early in fall camp.

Along the defensive line Tennessee returns every major contributor from a year ago while adding Emmit Gooden and Omari Thomas. The Vols have depth on the defensive line but need guys to separate and make the next step this season.

The shortened offseason could provide the perfect chance to do that.

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