KNOXVILLE – Regardless of who lines up along Tennessee’s offensive line on Saturday at South Carolina, the group’s success will depend on having a high degree of cohesion and chemistry.
The Vols’ fortunes, in turn, will follow their performance like a running back tucking in behind a pulling guard. The Vols have two such backs – Ty Chandler and Eric Gray – and they arguably represent UT’s best chance to be productive throughout the coming season.
The sooner they get their footing the better quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and a retooled receivers corps will perform.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney spoke of Chandler and Gray earlier this month as if both are seasoned pros.
“You can just see there’s an air of maturity about those two kids when they walk on the field,” Chaney said. “They do their business. They’re real professional in how they look at it. … They’re to a point in their careers, you’re not coaching effort, you’re not coaching alignment, you’re coaching nuances, the things that make a difference on a play with those two men. They’re really driven to be successful.”
Their ambitions will suffer, however, without adequate blocking. In that regard, circumstances haven’t always aligned in UT’s favor throughout preseason camp.
For example, Cade Mays has been practicing after transferring from Georgia during the offseason. But as of Thursday morning, the 6-foot-6, 320-pound junior lineman still doesn’t know whether he will be eligible to play on Saturday. He received a waiver from the NCAA last week. He’s still waiting on clearance from the SEC and comments from commissioner Greg Sankey on Wednesday weren’t encouraging. He cited the conference’s rule requiring intraconference transfers who haven’t graduated to sit out a year
Tennessee will wait on Mays’ status until “before we get on the plane,” UT coach Jeremy Pruitt said on Wednesday. “He’s obviously been working, preparing to play this week, and we’ve got a plan either way.”
As for other lineman, sophomore Wanya Morris is listed with Jahmir Johnson as a possible starter at left tackle on the first depth chart. But Pruitt said last week that Morris (6-5, 320) has been quarantined for much of the preseason. He practiced last week for the second time in 23 days.
Furthermore, Pruitt said Wednesday night on the Vol Network’s “Vol Calls” radio show that tight end Austin Pope likely is out for the season. Although he underwent surgery in July to repair a herniated disc in his back, the coaches had been optimistic about Pope’s availability. He has played a pivotal role in UT’s blocking schemes up front.
Despite these developments, center Brandon Kennedy isn’t worried that the O-line might flunk their first chemistry exam.
“I think we have better chemistry now because throughout this whole fall camp we’ve relied on some guys that may not usually get certain opportunities,” he said. “They’ve been able to learn and grow and also some of the young guys have been able to get more opportunities. This whole pandemic has allowed them to come along, and we feel great going into the first game at who will have out there.”
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.