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Tennessee lacks experience on both sides of line

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 1, 2014 at 9:51 pm •  Published: August 1, 2014
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's hopes of competing in the Southeastern Conference this season start at the line of scrimmage.

And they just might end there as well.

The Volunteers began preseason camp Friday night without any offensive or defensive linemen who started more than three games last season. Tennessee is the only Football Bowl Subdivision program that must replace both its entire starting offensive and defensive lines from a year ago.

"It's a challenge," junior center Mack Crowder said. "The SEC's played up front. If you don't have a good offensive and defensive line, then you're probably not going to do very well."

Tennessee wants to continue the program's recent run of success on the offensive line. The Vols allowed 23 sacks over the last two seasons - the fewest in the SEC over that stretch - with a senior-laden line that featured first-round draft pick Ja'Wuan James.

But the entire offensive line this year has a combined six starts. Tennessee's most experienced lineman is junior guard Marcus Jackson, whose five career starts came way back in 2011.

Jackson, who redshirted last season, likely will start along with junior Kyler Kerbyson at guard. Crowder is the probable first-team center.

"I think of it as a tremendous opportunity," coach Butch Jones said. "It's a tremendous opportunity for Mack Crowder. Mack Crowder has worked exceptionally hard. Now is your opportunity. Go grab it. Go take a hold of it. Marcus Jackson, we redshirted him because we knew this was going to happen. Now is your opportunity. You have waited for this."

Tennessee's inexperience is particularly apparent at tackle. Coleman Thomas, a freshman who enrolled early enough to participate in spring practice, is the likely starting right tackle. Fifth-year senior Jacob Gilliam, a former walk-on, is competing with junior-college transfer Dontavius Blair on the left side.

"I like the fact that people don't think we're going to be all right, that they think we're going to be the weak spot," Kerbyson said. "It motivates me every day, keeps me going."

Tennessee's defensive line doesn't have as tough an act to follow. The Vols have posted the fewest sacks in the SEC each of the last two years. Nobody on the current roster has more than 4 ½ career sacks.

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