Tennessee’s offensive line was one of the Vols’ largest reasons for optimism entering the 2020 season. Tennessee returned all five starters from a solid unit a season ago while adding Georgia transfer Cade Mays.
The Vols starting offensive line totaled 24 stars coming out of high school, and after a strong week two performance against Missouri, Tennessee nicknamed the unit “TVA” for the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Tennessee’s next game was against Georgia and the nation’s top run defense. The Bulldogs humiliated “TVA,” holding the Vols to -1 rushing yards due to five sacks of Jarrett Guarantano. The Vols’ offensive line cratered the rest of the season, struggling horribly in pass protection.
Now, under a new regime, many of the same faces remain and Tennessee is hoping a new coach and style of play can bolster the highly touted group to its potential. It all starts with learning head coach Josh Heupel’s offense and the energy it takes to be an offensive lineman in it.
"I think it starts mentally,” Offensive line coach Glen Elarbee said. “Guys have to be able to process fast. It is a quick tempo offense or fast tempo, whatever you want to call it. The play is coming in, we are ID the front and the ball is snapped. If you can't process, you're going to struggle. I think in this league and the way we do run the ball, you've got to have wide hips and physicality. If you don't like trying to knock somebody off the ball and don't enjoy moving a man from point A to point B, all the clichés you can think of, and have the ability to run block, you're not going to be very good at this offense either. You've got to be a tough guy. After that, I think it comes down to redirection. At some point, your guy slid in pass sets and in the run game you're going to be in a man-block and have to change direction. For me, can you think, are you a tough dude who can move guys off the ball and can you redirect? If you can do those three things, you can start to build from there."
While talent remains along the offensive line, Tennessee did lose three huge pieces in Trey Smith, Brandon Kennedy and Wanya Morris.
Smith was the leader upfront and a two time First Team All SEC selection. Kennedy was a two year starter at center, while Morris was one of Jeremy Pruitt’s highest rated signings before an inconsistent two seasons as Tennessee’s offensive tackle.
Sophomore Cooper Mays seems poised to replace Kennedy in the middle of Tennessee’s offensive line. The younger of the two Mays’ brothers at UT, Cooper played limited snaps as a sixth offensive lineman this season but is off to a nice start in the new system.
"Cooper (Mays) has made a big-time leap,” Elarbee said. “I think one in his footwork and base. You go back and look at the first couple of practices just where he was in the run game to where he is now. He enjoys it every single day. The guy has juice. He has energy. I think he is trying to fix and be a better player every day. His technique, body position, hands. Whatever it is you ask, he tries to go work on it and get it fixed.”
Replacing Smith will be the most challenging task for Elarbee and Tennessee. Both Cade Mays and Jerome Carvin saw time at right guard last season. Both seemed poised to be starters in 2021, but Mays versatility and ability to play offensive tackle keeps competition at the guard spots this spring.
"Really at the end of the day it's a matter of where he fits best with all of the other guys,” Elarbee said of where Mays will play. “He's such a talented guy, and he has played so many different positions, and he knows how to use his body, how to move it. Really at the end of the day, he's probably going to slide in there where it makes us best. If that's at tackle, awesome and we'll roll on down the road. If it's at guard, awesome and that's where we'll go.”
Mays really struggled last season when he had to play tackle so the Vols’ upside seems highest with Mays and Carvin staring at guard, but the elder Mays’ brother’s versatility is important for a thin offensive line group.
Sophomore Javontez Spraggins earned playing time as a freshman a season ago and could start at guard as well.
Replacing Morris appears to be an early battle between K’Rojhn Calbert and Dayne Davis. Calbert competing for a starting spot comes as no surprise, but Davis is a walk on with no playing experience. His ascension to a legitimate contender to start at left tackle has been a surprising development and one that will be worth the watch as spring practice winds down.
“You respect a guy that understands where he's good and what he has to do, and he plays with great effort and has a great attitude,” Elarbee said of Davis. “He's done a really great job at left tackle.”
The star power, national recognition and preseason accolades may not be there for this Tennessee offensive line but the Vols believe this group is off to a good start and may be able to surprise people where last season’s unit disappointed.
"I think we're in a good spot,” Elarbee said. “The best tell of that would be when we get to scrimmage the second time. It's always where you make the biggest jump because they get to see how we play with tempo, where they were slowing themselves down inadvertently. You don't have to be in a panic, but everything is smooth and smooth is fast. Just knowing their awareness. I think that's where we'll probably make the biggest jump, and I can tell you if we're on track or not at that point. If we don't make the jump then we've got a ways to go. But we'll see there."