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The Tennessee Volunteers are Struggling on the Offensive Line, which Probably Excites Robert Nkemdiche

The Vols backfield is in trouble this Saturday.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

From the very start of the year, the Tennessee Volunteers have had trouble establishing a rushing attack, protecting quarterback Justin Worley, and making big plays. On the 2014 season thus far the Tennessee offense is ranked:

  • Twelfth in pass yards per attempt (6.1)
  • Thirteenth in points per game (28.0)
  • Twelfth in 10+ yards plays and 20+ yards plays, last in plays of 30+ yards (78, 23, and 7, respectively).
  • Last in 10+ and 20+ yard rushing plays (18 and 3, respectively)
  • Last in the SEC in yards per play (4.57)
  • Last in rush yards per attempt (2.96)
  • Last in tackles for a loss allowed (48.0 or 8.0 per game)
  • Last, by a good margin, in sacks allowed (23.0 or 3.83 per game, a full 8.0 sacks more than 13th ranked LSU)

Pretty much all of this can be blamed on Tennessee's lack of depth and experience (and dare I say talent?) on the offensive line. Yesterday Rocky Top Talk excellently outlined that the Vols only returned six total starts up front this season, a number which is so bad that it's the lowest such total over the past three college football seasons. It's "rebuilding in the Sun Belt" bad. It's why a team that has good skill players - hello Jalen Hurd! - can still struggle to establish any offensive identity. It's probably why Ole Miss is going to win while playing a simple, conservative game. lists Tennessee's starting offensive line as follows:

  • Left Tackle Brett Kendrick, Redshirt Freshman
  • Left Guard Marcus Jackson, Redshirt Junior
  • Center Mack Crowder, Redshirt Junior
  • Right Guard Jashon Robertson, Freshman
  • Right Tackle Kyler Kerbyson, Redshirt Junior

Of the three juniors up front, only two have any starts, Marcus Jackson and Mack Crowder, and those were still in reserve roles when the two were freshmen. Before this season, Kerbyson had taken some snaps on the offensive line, but didn't break into the top of the depth chart until this season. All of Tennessee's offensive linemen have legitmate SEC size, but few were legitimate SEC recruits (Marcus Jackson was a four star guy in his class). Speaking of recruiting, Tennessee didn't sign a single offensive lineman in 2012 per Rivals, which most certainly has a lot to do with the Vols' lack of depth and experience up front.

All of this suggests that the Ole Miss defense should do an excellent job of stopping the run and forcing Tennessee to make bad plays. At the season's halfway point, the Rebel D is tops in the SEC in scoring defense and yards per play allowed; second in fewest 10+ yard plays allowed; third in rushing defense; and fourth in tackles for a loss. In watching the Vols' highlights against UT Chattanooga and Florida, I saw offensive linemen who were out of position and routinely caught flat-footed against speedy pass rushers. Stunts, uneven blitzes, and even simple block-shedding maneuvers routinely meant that Justin Worley was forced out of the pocket or sacked, or that Tennessee running backs were tackled behind the line of scrimmage.

It is fair to say that the Tennessee line is definitely big and looks the part of an SEC line, but as far as their actual play is concerned they have the awareness and acumen of something much less intimidating. This isn't to say that this group couldn't grow into a more confident, cohesive unit by next season, but for now they simply aren't cutting it.