Redshirt junior center Mack Crowder has been in Tennessee’s program four years with one start to his credit, so 2014 is not his first rodeo.
Redshirt junior guard/tackle Kyler Kerbyson has been in Tennessee’s program four years and was voted Most Improved Offensive Player of the spring, so 2014 is not his first rodeo.
Redshirt senior tackle Jacob Gilliam has been in Tennessee’s program five years, performing so well in spring drills that he earned a scholarship and a Game 1 start at left tackle, so 2014 is not his first rodeo.
Freshman guard Jashon Robertson … OK, this is his first rodeo.
As the recap above illustrates, all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the 2014 Vol offensive line overlooks one fact: Most of the first-teamers have experience; it just isn’t starting experience.
“Starting gives you that sense that you can play against the competition,” Jackson said. “But that’s about it. If you practice and prepare the proper way, there’s no doubt when you go into the game. If you practice like it’s a game you’ll play the game like it’s a practice. That’s the law we live by.”
Gilliam (pronounced GILL-um) also believes experience is invaluable, even if it isn’t starting experience.
“It’s big,” he said. “Marcus has started some, Mack has started, and a couple of us have 80 or 90 snaps under our belt.”
Jackson, Crowder, Gilliam and Kerbyson feel like grizzled veterans after benefiting from three to four years each in a college weight program and three to four years each getting college-level coaching. Working together in practice has helped, too, even if they weren’t getting first-team repetitions.
“A lot of us had a lot of time last year – sitting behind the first-team guys, getting some chemistry in practice and really learning how to play with each other,” Gilliam said. “I think that’s transferred down the two-deep now.”
The quartet took so many practice reps together as second-teamers last season, in fact, that the guys already feel like a cohesive unit.
“It’s great,” Kerbyson said. “We’ve meshed together really well over practices. Last year, when we were behind all of those guys, we called ourselves ‘Best 2s in America.’ That’s how we approach it now, except it’s ‘Best 1s in America.’ We’re going to be the best guys out there.”
Other than the players themselves, no one is expecting Tennessee’s offensive linemen to be “the best guys out there” this fall. The lack of starting experience would have some offensive line coaches shedding crocodile tears each time they meet the press. To his credit, Tennessee's Don Mahoney is a competitor, not a whiner. He’s eager to go to war with the troops he has. Some are battle tested. Most aren’t.
“There’s not a whole lot of starts under our belt,” Mahoney conceded. “Marcus Jackson and Mack Crowder have had some playing time, have started. Their work and their day-in, day-out attitude is one the group follows.”
The six starts pales in comparison to last fall, when the first-team line of Ja’Wuan James (37), Zach Fulton (31), James Stone (27), Alex Bullard (14) and Tiny Richardson (12) entered the 2013 season with a combined 121 starts. Collegians don’t get long-term contracts like NFL players, however, so turnover is inevitable.
“Last year we had a bunch of ‘em who had started,” Mahoney noted. “This year there’s just a few, so it’s all in how we approach it. There are two voices right now, Jackson and Crowder. Those two guys are the bell cows who say how we do things, how we work, how we handle meetings, walk-throughs, whatever it is. Those are the two voices, and that’s it. The other guys are responding well but we’ve got a long way to go.”
That’s especially true at the critical left tackle spot, where former walk-on Gilliam beat out JUCO transfer Dontavius Blair for the job of protecting the quarterback’s blind side.
"Blair’s working extremely hard," Mahoney said, "but Gilliam is playing more consistent right now.”
Gilliam recently got a solid endorsement from one of his line mates.
“I’m really confident,” Crowder said. “Jacob Gilliam’s been doing a great job. He’s a very sound guy with his technique and things like that. He has a little aggression to him, which is always good with offensive linemen.”
One key to getting better is chemistry. That’s an important component for any offensive line, and Kerbyson thinks this O-line has it.
“Nobody thinks they’re better than anyone else, which is nice. Nobody thinks this guy is not equal to me,” Kerbyson said. “I’m friends with the walk-ons. It doesn’t matter. If you’re on the team and you’re sacrificing with me over the spring and summer, you’re part of me. Coach Jones talks about The Power of One, and we are one team: One focus. One purpose. That’s how we go into each day.”
Mahoney finds such talk encouraging. Still, it’s just talk.
“I really believe that the offensive line anywhere is the closest unit,” the Vol aide said. “Guys say they’re close, and I say, ‘Don’t tell me. Show me. Show me with the way you work, with how productive you are. It’s a lifestyle, and they’ve got to do it every day. It’s an ongoing process, and we’re not where we need to be yet.”
Many fans are skeptical that the Vols’ patchwork line can get where it needs to be this fall. They view the blockers as the team’s weak link. Acutely aware of this, the O-linemen feed off of it.
“We work hard every day,” Jackson said. “We have a chip on our shoulders and we’re working hard to improve.”
Don Mahoney video interview