Minus eight of the top nine guys from last year's O-line, including all five starters, Vol blockers have been criticized for months by their own fan base: They lack maturity ... they lack experience ... they lack talent ... yada yada yada.
The tide turned a bit on the opening play of Tuesday's first preseason scrimmage, however, when the blocking front opened a hole that Tauren Poole roared through for a 49-yard gain. The O-linemen weren't done, though. According to Derek Dooley, they consistently outplayed the D-linemen throughout the scrimmage.
Those words of praise from the head man had to be comforting to a group that has heard nothing but gloom and doom the past six months.
"It feels good," senior guard Jarrod Shaw said following Friday's practice. "It feels real good actually - coming from where we were in the spring to where we are now. We can't get complacent, though, We've got to keep working hard and keep getting better."
Somehow, you never expected to hear the word "complacent" used in connection with this line. These guys never had any expectations to fall short of ... until they whipped the D-line in the initial scrimmage.
"We felt good coming off the field," Shaw said, "but we know this coming scrimmage they (defensive linemen) are going to be gunning for us."
No doubt the D-line will be looking for both vengeance and redemption when scrimmage No. 2 commences Saturday night at 7.
"We've got to prepare more," Shaw said. "We've got to be more focused and come out as if it was a game."
Odds are, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will throw a lot more stunts, blitzes and disguises at the O-line than he did in scrimmage No. 1.
"Definitely," Shaw said. "They're going to come back and try to win this scrimmage."
The offensive linemen should be motivated, as well. If they lose Saturday night's battle in the trenches, the O-line bashing will resume as loud as ever on Sunday. That's OK, though. These guys seem to draw energy from the dreary picture painted by their critics.
"It motivates you to come out here and work harder and try to be better than everybody else in this conference," Shaw said. "At the same time, we don't focus on that. We just try to come together as a unit, soak in as much as we can from Coach Hiestand."
First-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, fresh from a successful stint with the NFL's Chicago Bears, is trying to forge a cohesive line with a bunch of guys who never lined up together prior to last March. Reportedly, he's succeeding.
"Coming together as a unit was the biggest challenge Coach Hiestand had for us when he came in," Shaw said. "Being that tight-knit group he wanted us to be is where we've made the most progress."
The O-linemen are so tight-knit, apparently, that they almost can read one another's thoughts.
"I know what JerQuari (Schofield) is going to do," Shaw said. "I know what Carson (Anderson) is going to do. We're all close. It don't matter where you are on the depth chart."
The current depth chart shows the same first unit that came out of spring practice No. 1 - sophomore Dallas Thomas at left tackle, Schofield at left guard, junior Cody Pope at center, Shaw at right guard and freshman JaWuan James at right tackle.
Shaw believes the first-team line may surprise a lot of folks.
"JerQuari and JaWuan are filled with talent that I wish I had," he said. "JerQuari's that road grader you want at guard, and JaWuan is a nice young talent that's only going to get better. Dallas and Cody have been in the program for a few years. They've been working hard to get on the field, and I feel it's their time."
Moreover, Shaw says Tennessee's second-team line is nowhere near the disaster area most fans seem to believe.
"Those guys are coming along real good," he said. "They're a tight-knit group also. When they're focused, man, it's hard to stop them, too - Daniel Hood, Carson Anderson, Big Zach (Fulton), all of those guys. They're coming along real good. I see a lot of talent from the freshmen - Zach, JaWuan and (James) Stone especially. Those guys are going to very good in a few years."