KNOXVILLE – There was a lot to unpack on Monday regarding Tennessee’s football game against Alabama last Saturday.
In the midst of critiquing officials and assessing quarterbacks, among other topics, Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt dropped this nugget: “Our offensive line probably played their best game.”
Tennessee’s 114 net yards rushing was its most against the Crimson Tide since 2015. The total followed the 190 yards gained against Mississippi State the previous week, thereby adding to an encouraging trend heading into Saturday’s game against South Carolina.
Several offensive linemen took part in a play last Saturday that’s bound to be featured prominently among the season’s highlights. They helped turn what could’ve been a 2-yard run by running back Tim Jordan into an 11-yard gain by pushing the pile forward in rugby-like fashion.
Afterward, Jordan, who rushed for 94 yards in all, said that the linemen “played their asses off.” On Tuesday he happily ceded the 9-yards worth of push to them and still was recalling the looks on their faces after the play.
“It brought confidence to them,” he said.
Freshman tackle Wanya Morris’ face lit up on Tuesday when asked about the play, saying he’s watched the surge four times since then.
“Imposing your will, it feels good,” he said.
Guard Trey Smith limited himself to two viewings. He was more expansive, though, in distinguishing the play’s significance.
“It’s part of the culture change we’ve got to have around here,” he said. “It starts from the top. Coach Pruitt, Coach (Jim) Chaney, Coach (Will) Friend, Coach (Cameron) Clemmons, they all teach that. They preach it to us every day. Just seeing us do it one time, it was pretty wonderful.”
Smith based his characterization on the number of people involved with the play. Although Smith came late, he arrived with a few yards’ worth of purpose to help finish it.
“Once you get all 11 guys going, you’ve got something great,” he said.
Keeping the same five guys going on the offensive line has been a challenge, as evidenced by the Vols starting six different alignments in seven games.
Injuries have deprived them of such linemen as Jahmir Johnson and lately Riley Locklear. Conversely others like Jerome Carvin have progressed during the season. A few weeks ago, the Vols were considering Carvin for a redshirt. He started on Saturday and Smith noted his pile-driving impact on the celebrated running play.
And then there’s tight end Austin Pope, a former high school wide receiver who conceded on Tuesday that now, three years and 30-35 added pounds later, he considers himself to be a “sort of glorified lineman.”
“I thought I would come in and catch a bunch of balls and be the next Jason Witten,” said Pope, referencing the former UT tight end great. “Obviously that didn’t happen. I’m just playing my role.”
Judging by the brace he was sporting on his left wrist, he’s taken on the part with some vigor.
“I definitely find joy in finishing my block and being physical,” he said.
Factor in two freshmen starting in Morris and Darnell Wright and it’s taken some time to get everyone going in the right direction. But Pruitt sees such a progression taking place.
“I think the guys are starting to play together in the same system,” he said. “Now we’re getting into the end of the year here so some of the plays, they’ve had a lot of repetition doing them over and over again, so we continue to improve that.”
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at email@example.com.