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Continuity vs. competition? How Jim Chaney plans to manage Tennessee's OL

On the eve of fall camp, head coach Jeremy Pruitt boldly projected an air of confidence surrounding Tennessee’s biggest question mark this season.

"I'm excited about our 2019 offensive line," Pruitt stated.

I’m pretty sure everyone in the room all did the surprised blinking gif in unison. Did he say excited?

Much of Tennessee success this fall will be determined by its most maligned unit from a year ago.

No one — not the coaches, players or fans — were excited to watch Will Friend’s group much in 2018. Lacking depth, girth and talent, Tennessee’s offensive line allowed the second-most sacks in the SEC, per Pro Football Focus, despite the team attempting by far the fewest drop-backs in the conference. The Vols surrendered 92 tackles for loss, worst in the league, and averaged just 3.7 yards per carry.

But Drew Richmond and Chance Hall are gone, while Trey Smith might return, Brandon Kennedy is back and two of the top prep offensive tackles are now in the room.

Pruitt wants the group that struggled so mightily to turn the page from last season and simply focus on the present in fall camp.

“You look at these guys when they walk into a room, whether it’s guys that have been here for a year, two years, three years, you can see how their bodies have changed in a positive way. We have guys that have experience, that have played a lot of games. We have guys that again are new on campus and they’re looking for the opportunity to play. We have competition in the room. We have smart guys. We have guys to me that demonstrated in the spring some physical toughness, some physicality. But if you look at the group all together, they’ve not played a lot together.”

Pruitt’s last sentence there is one of the prevailing questions of fall camp.

Can Tennessee find its best five and allow the unit to build some continuity, but do so without sacrificing competition? Oh, and do both at the same time while the Trey Smith is quagmire still out there?

There’s little doubt that the group has more upside and depth compared to last season. It’s entirely possible that none of the five guys who started the finale loss to Vanderbilt — Marcus Tatum, Jahmir Johnson, Ryan Johnson, Carvin and Richmond — are in the opening lineup Week 1 against Georgia State.

But it’s a tricky situation to manage, and for a unit that could determine the team’s ceiling this fall, striking the right balance between competition versus continuity is paramount over the next three weeks.

I asked new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who was adamant you cannot hide a deficient offensive line, how he plans to manage such a dilemma.

“Everybody has a different opinion on that,” he said, chuckling. “My history says defensive coordinators and defensive head coaches think you can move those pieces around a lot. The day before the game, ‘Hey, he can go to guard, he can go to tackle.’ Then there are those people who have worked with the offensive line who try to get it in place way too soon, so I’ve always mixed it trying to figure out the harmony there.

“I think as soon as you can find your five best players, you try to put them in the positions you need them at. It’s like anything else, but you also don’t want to do it so early you’re losing competition, too. We want to let this thing play out and see who the best players are. I’m real interested about that, it’ll be good to see.”

During the first two days of camp, Tennessee has worked freshman Wanya Morris as the starting left tackle, rotating with Jahmir Johnson. Smith as been at left guard, but is mostly non-contact. Kennedy, who missed nearly the entire 2018 season with a torn ACL, is back at center, with redshirt sophomore K’Rojhn Calbert, who has never started a game, at right guard and Tatum at right tackle. That group has never played even a practice scrimmage snap together.

And that’s the challenge. With the uncertainty surrounding Smith’s status, it’s going to be hard for Tennessee to truly settle on a starting five until the staff gets some clarity there. Chaney is excited about underclassmen like Jerome Carvin and 5-star freshman tackle Darnell Wright, and he hopes to see continued growth from vets like Johnson, Niehaus and Tatum.

For now, it seems continuity will cede its position to competition.

“It’s hard to hide offensively if you’re deficient in the offensive line. It’s difficult to do. I think it’s virtually impossible at times. So my anticipation is that our kids are going to go out there and compete, we’re going to be just fine, go get better as the season goes on, and continue to develop and hopefully everything will go our way,” Chaney said.

“It’s going to be fun to watch the competition there and see how that unfolds, but I’m very optimistic about those kids. I think they’re hungry. I think they’ve realized they think they need to play better, and I think they will, so I’m excited about that.”