It's been consistency --- the magic word among Tennessee's coaching staff --- that's marked Brett Kendrick's rise up the Vols' offensive line depth chart in recent weeks, and that's what line coach Don Mahoney pointed to Wednesday in assessing Kendrick as a possible answer for injured Jacob Gilliam.
Both players are Knoxville natives, and Kendrick now is in line to potentially start Saturday when the Vols host Arkansas State (12 p.m., SEC Network) following a season-ending ACL injury to Gilliam, the former walk-on who was Tennessee's opening-game starter at left tackle against Utah State.
"He became more consistent with his play; played extremely fast with decision-making and understanding of things," Mahoney said of the 6-foot-6, 316-pound redshirt-freshman. "Again, just it's like Coach (Butch Jones) talks about, in terms of practice and the production in practice and what you do, he's been a guy that's been pretty steady for us from that standpoint.
"When that (Gilliam injury) happened, there was a plan in place that we had, and he responded and did some good things."
That plan, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian explained, stemmed from the coaching staff's decision to heavily cross-train their offensive linemen throughout much of spring and fall camp prior to settling into a starting five and top-tier backups in mid-August.
"One of the good parts about juggling things at the beginning is that we were able to get a lot of guys experience at a lot of different positions," Bajakian explained. "So now when the injury does occur, we've got guys who have a significant amount of practice reps under their belt that they can slide right in and play effectively."
While Kendrick starting in place of Gilliam is one option, the Vols also are working to get both Coleman Thomas and Dontavius Blair --- first-year players who enrolled in January --- prepared for increased roles.
"Well, you know, Dontavius Blair's play has really the last couple of days, (he's) done things a lot better," Mahoney said. "Fundamentally is the biggest thing with him with his big frame and all, which he's had to improve some of that and he has.
"Coleman Thomas is making strides. He's really, from the transition from the center position to tackle, particularly at this level and the speed of it, he's getting an understanding of it. It's becoming something that is you know what you would expect to be like in baseball, a shortstop with ground balls to first. You're doing it over and over and over. He's starting to get an understanding of the kick-slide and getting some confidence. That's the biggest thing, and being in a position where it's so demanding and those type of things, his confidence-level is getting greater so that's been a huge plus."
Blair was a coveted four-star junior college prospect who picked the Vols over a number of schools, most notably Auburn and Texas A&M. But Blair's development until recently had been a bit slow. Mahoney, however, is seeing more from the mammoth, 6-foot-8, 300-pound Blair.
"His hands have gotten better. His hands have been one in which guys that have the length that they do and the spots, particularly at tackle, he would get in trouble a lot with his hands being outside. He's starting to play better with his hands inside," Mahoney said. "To some people it's the little things, but it's a huge thing for us and seeing those strides are being made. His strengths athletically is his length; well, sometimes a little bit of his weakness is his arms are so long that some power gets lost and now he's got to work his hands being tighter and he's done that.
"He's making strides and he's really concentrating on it and I've been really pleased to see some of the strides that he's made the last couple of days."
ELDER 'OK' WITH TIGHT ENDS, SEES ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Tennessee's mostly inexperienced group of tight ends were more productive in their first game than at almost any point last season. Ethan Wolf caught three balls for 26 yards and Brendan Downs had one catch for a 12-yard touchdown.
While there were several things to improve on according to tight ends coach Mark Elder, he saw more positives and teaching points than flat-out negatives.
"We graded out O.K. There were some issues that we need to correct. We need to get the false start in a critical situation - that's not what you're looking for, obviously," Elder said. "We caught the ball well. Everything that hit our hands we came down with. Missed a couple blocks that we'd like to get back. We had a couple of, I wouldn't call them true (missed assignments), but a couple of issues as far as your landmarks on the blocks and just understanding the intricate nuances of the blocking scheme that we've got to improve.
"The young guys came out and it wasn't too big of a stadium for them. That was the good thing to see. It wasn't like they were wide-eyed and were going, 'Oh my gosh, 102,000.' They both handled that pretty well but we've got to improve."