Tennessee center Josh McNeil doesn’t mince words when talking about Tennessee’s plans for the offensive line this fall. He’s a fan, unabashedly so, of what the Vols hope to accomplish up front under first-year head coach Lane Kiffin.
“We’re probably more comfortable now, 10 times more comfortable now, than we were at this point last year by far,” McNeil says. “By far.”
After 15 practices in the spring, Tennessee’s offensive linemen are raving about an almost exclusively zone blocking scheme. And they couldn’t be more comfortable, unless perhaps they could play wrapped up in a cozy blanket.
“We always talk about how the overall type of plays we run, how much the style fits us, how much we love it,” McNeil said. “We’ve all talked about that. We all agree that we’re really excited to get it going come fall.”
Coaches: Jim Chaney, James Cregg (tackles)
Lettermen Lost: (3) OT – Ramon Foster, Ramone Johnson; OG – Anthony Parker
Projected Starters: LT – Chris Scott (Sr., 6-5, 346); LG – Vladimir Richard (Sr., 6-4, 300); C – Josh McNeil (Sr., 6-4, 280); RG – Jacques McClendon (Sr., 6-3, 324); RT – Jarrod Shaw (Jr., 6-4, 332) or Aaron Douglas (R-Fr., 6-6, 282)
Watch For: A big jump in UT’s production in the run game. The Vols are shaping up to be a run-first team, and assuming right tackle becomes settled, they should be able to produce.
Key Stat: Behind UT’s four seniors, five players combined to play in nine games last season. Exactly none of those played in an SEC game other than UT’s 34-3 rout of Mississippi State.
Much of Tennessee’s offensive success could rest on a good year from the offensive line. Last year, the Vols struggled to run or pass, finishing 115th in total offense and next to last in the SEC.
At least part of the blame rests on an offensive line that never grasped a flip-flopping scheme that saw players frequently move from the right side to the left side, sometimes even from play to play. Head coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator/line coach Jim Chaney installed a zone approach this spring, hoping to exploit UT’s athleticism along the line.
“We’ve definitely got some athletes that can get out there and get to running up front. That’s what you need in a zone scheme,” McNeil said. “We’ve got some really athletic linemen in the two-deep.”
What they don’t have is a lot of experience beyond four returning players who started games last fall.
McNeil is the Vols’ most experienced player with 35 consecutive starts heading into the season. Guards Jacques McClendon and Vladimir Richard platooned at guard last season opposite Anthony Parker, who departs along with right tackle Ramon Foster.
Chris Scott returns at left tackle, but spring practice failed to produce a clear-cut starter at right tackle.
Junior Jarrod Shaw and redshirt freshman Aaron Douglas are the leading candidates heading into fall camp, but neither is a sure thing.
From a depth standpoint, the Vols have little besides former walk-ons Cody Sullins, who pushed McNeil for the starting job during spring practice, and his brother, Cory Sullins.
Still, McNeil saw the Vols make strides in offseason workouts.
“A lot of the times an offensive lineman isn’t ready to play because he just isn’t physically ready to play yet,” he said. “That’s where the summer comes in, getting bigger and stronger and faster. A player might mentally know what he’s doing but not be there physically. In the summer, the player can get to where he needs to be going into the fall so he can be there.”
When it comes to confidence, at least, UT’s offensive line is already riding high. In McNeil’s case, at an all-time high.
“I haven’t been this confident about our run scheme going into a season since I can remember,” McNeil said. “That’s how much confidence I have in this run system and how much confidence I have in what we’re doing going into this season.”
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.