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.
The Vols have moved Curt Maggitt from linebacker to the defensive line in an attempt to create more pressure. Maggitt, a two-year starter, missed the 2013 season while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Injuries also limited Trevarris Saulsberry to four games in spot duty last season.
Both should have featured roles this season along with sophomores Corey Vereen and Danny O'Brien. Newcomers such as junior-college transfer Owen Williams and freshman Dimarya Mixon could contribute immediately.
Jones also is counting on a breakthrough year from senior Jordan Williams, who is moving from end to tackle after starting three games last season. Jones said Williams "had a better offseason than any player in our program."
After weighing 260 pounds last season, Williams now is listed at 272 and says he is up to 285. Williams added weight by making regular trips to Chipotle and cooking on his own. Williams spent part of Thursday's media session boasting about the pot roast and the brown sugar bacon he recently prepared.
"I definitely looked at every workout as if everybody was watching me," Williams said. "We had 30-something freshmen coming in, and I remember when I was a freshman looking around, not knowing what to do, even the little things.
"I knew they were looking toward me, and I didn't want to let them down."
Tennessee's progress on both sides of the line could determine whether this season is a letdown.
NOTES: Jones said Tennessee's improved team speed was evident during its first practice. Jones also said he needs to see better accuracy from his quarterbacks. ... Jones said wide receiver Cody Blanc was hurt during the portion of Friday's practice that wasn't open to the media. There was no immediate word on the severity of the injury, though Jones said Blanc would be undergoing an MRI. "It may be his ankle, it may be (his) Achilles tendon," Jones said. "We're kind of waiting right now." Blanc had one catch for 43 yards last season.