KNOXVILLE – There was a distinct echo in Jeremy Pruitt’s comments during the final week of Tennessee’s spring football practice.
On April 9, the Vols’ head coach said the following about UT’s offensive line: “We have to be more consistent. We have to play with a little better pad level. We have to become better finishers.”
Four days later, following the Orange & White game at Neyland Stadium, Pruitt doubled down on the previous message.
“We have more guys that have an opportunity to contribute right now than we had last year but we have to learn to compete better,” he said.
“We have to play with better pad angles. We have to be lower with our bodies. We’ve got to take the correct steps and we’ve got to be finishers.”
Get your pads lower and finish. Get it? Got it.
This sort of emphasis could’ve repeated itself at any point during the spring – or the past year for that matter. The offensive line has been a priority because it’s been a primary reason why the offense has languished among the nation’s worst the past two seasons.
The rebuild was slowed last fall when tackle Trey Smith, a freshman All-American the previous season, was sidelined because of blood clots in his lungs. His status continues to be uncertain. He participated in some position drills this spring that featured only light contact. Smith hasn’t yet been cleared for full participation.
Another not-so-encouraging sign was Pruitt’s intermittent grumbles during spring practice about bad snaps.
Conversely, there are reasons for optimism and Pruitt acknowledged the progression in saying, “It’s not where we want it to be but there is a lot of positives. We have guys that have really improved this year.”
In this case, offensive line coach Will Friend created the echo, backing Pruitt’s assessment with his estimation of the line being “stronger, more physical, more mature” than a year ago.
In reference to having more players with more opportunities, Tennessee signed five offensive linemen in this year’s recruiting class. Two of them, Wanya Morris and Chris Akporoghene, were early enrollees and took part in spring practice.
Morris, a five-star prospect from Loganville, Ga., lined up at first-team tackle in the Orange & White game while Akporoghene, a 3-star prospect who finished his high school career at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., lined up at second-team guard.
Another five-star prospect, Darnell Wright, will arrive this summer. He and Morris could be starting tackles this fall.
Among the returnees, K’Rojhn Calbert, a 6-foot-5, 330-pound redshirt sophomore, improved during the spring and was first-team right guard for the spring game. Jahmir Johnson, who started 11 games at left guard last season, again was first team at the position for the spring game.
The center position, meanwhile, is competitive with Ryan Johnson, Jerome Carvin and Brandon Kennedy all contending for playing time. Johnson was listed as the starter for the spring game.
Marcus Tatum, who was first-team right tackle, said earlier in the spring that competition makes everyone better.
“Nobody should be scared of competition,” he said, “or they’re in the wrong conference.”
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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 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org