KNOXVILLE – A weight scale flashed more than a number to Tennessee’s Marcus Tatum following a preseason football practice earlier this month. The reading of 318 amounted to peace of mind and validation for the Vols’ offensive tackle.
He was down just two pounds. It was water weight lost, he figured, rather than an erosion of the 20-plus pounds he added during the off-season lifting weights and wielding a knife and fork with great purpose.
“Now it feels like it’s different,” Tatum said. “I used to have to eat so much more. Now I’m just eating normally.”
Tatum reflects the offensive line’s expanding dimensions by way of personal initiative, recruiting or some combination of both. Now the group looks different as well with 12 linemen listed at 300 pounds or more. The growing trend seemingly points them in a positive direction in advance of the Aug. 31 season opener against Georgia State .
Nathan Niehaus, on the hand, was added to the ranks of former O-linemen last week. The 6-foot-6, 300-pound redshirt junior, who started six games at right guard last season, left the team and the reason was hauntingly familiar. Buried in personal statement that lauded virtually all of the coaches and support staff, Niehaus announced that he was retiring from the game because of “sustained injuries and the overlapping wear on my body.”
Niehaus became the seventh offensive lineman to leave the program for health-related issues during the past two years. Freshman Melvin McBride announced this summer that he was retiring because of “health problems.” He had been on campus less than two weeks.
Niehaus and McBride joined the ranks of Chance Hall, Jack Jones, Tanner Antonutti, Devante Brooks and Eric Crosby. That’s a lot of depth and a lot of potential out the door.
Furthermore, the playing status of junior lineman Trey Smith continues to be in question because of a blood clot condition that sidelined him last season.
This unfortunate storyline lingers over the present like a dark cloud that stubbornly refuses to lift.
As the tug of war over the offensive line’s true course continues, the Vols savor the depth they do have. Redshirt senior center Brandon Kennedy, a transfer from Alabama, is back after being sidelined with a knee injury last season. Freshmen Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright are competing for significant roles.
Attrition notwithstanding, Tatum says the situation is better than before.
“I just love depth,” he said. “People don’t understand what it’s like to practice and play a game with like 10 people. … bodies are worn down. Now we have (more) people to help contribute to the team. It feels much better.”
Fellow lineman Ryan Johnson said the group also has benefitted from a second consecutive summer in the same off-season conditioning program.
“You can really tell a lot of guys have changed,” he said. “You can see it in their body. … They’ve cut fat. They’ve gained muscle.”
Tatum, for one, feels like a completely different lineman.
“The whole outlook of the game changes,” he said. “I actually feel like I can try different things instead of before I had to do a jump set to stop (defenders). Now I feel I can switch things up a little more.”
The difference must feel like a weight off his shoulders.
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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