Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Vols’ 2020 season was the play of the offensive line. A unit of five returning starters and 24 total stars went from the unstoppable “TVA” to one of Tennessee’s biggest weaknesses in less than a month’s time.
Entering the 2021 season, that group is almost entirely gone. Wanya Morris entered the transfer portal after the coaching change and found a new home at Oklahoma. Trey Smith was a seventh-round draft pick by the Kansas City Chiefs and Brandon Kennedy even got an opportunity in the Minnesota Vikings’ rookie minicamp.
That leaves junior Darnell Wright and senior Cade Mays as the Vols’ only returning starters in a position group that will be crucial to first-year head coach Josh Heupel’s success.
The one starter whose position is all but guaranteed is Wright, who should start at right tackle. It’s a position Wright can hold down with ease, as he started there 14 times in his career, including in nine of the Vols’ 10 games a year ago.
Sophomore Cooper Mays is poised to replace Kennedy up the middle. The younger Mays brother saw action in all 10 games of the shortened 2020 season and even twice started at center as a freshman. An excellent spring learning the new system only bolstered his chances.
His older brother, Cade Mays, is a versatile lineman capable of playing every position on the line. Six of Mays seven starts last season were at right guard, though with Jerome Carvin also having spent time at right guard, Heupel and his new offensive line coach Glen Elarbee might be inclined to start Cade Mays at left guard to replace the substantial hole that came with Smith’s departure.
Cade Mays did get some snaps at right tackle, including one start, but he struggled in that role. It seems that Tennessee’s best line will have both Cade Mays and Carvin as the starting guards, but with Tennessee’s lack of line depth, the senior Mays might be forced into the tackle job at some point in the season.
That leaves replacing Morris at left tackle, and at this point it seems to be a two-way race between K’Rojhn Calbert and Dayne Davis. Calbert is a redshirt senior that has played in 32 games over his career, including five starts at tackle. He was limited to only 51 offensive snaps in 2020, but worked extensively at tackle during spring practice and should be the frontrunner in the battle.
Davis, on the other hand, is a former walk-on who has yet to see any action in his two seasons on Rocky Top. Despite his inexperience, Davis earned a scholarship in December 2020 and impressed his coaches enough in the spring to be a legitimate contender for the starting left tackle job.
Tennessee’s offensive line does not have the same caliber or star power as its predecessor did, but under a new regime of Heupel and the well-respected Elarbee, there is plenty of reason to believe this unit can take a step in the right direction.