KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s offense line has performed among the worst in the SEC, even with four starters returning entering this season.
Vols offensive line coach Dan Mahoney attempted to explain why on Tuesday, pointing to a slow start and lack of cohesion in fall camp, and a lack of consistency.
Tennessee bottomed out in its 49-10 loss to Alabama last Saturday, with the Vols linemen thrown around like rag dolls, and starting offensive tackles Chance Hall and Brett Kendrick knocked out of the game.
“Definitely, this past week, without a doubt, it was not a winning performance,” said Mahoney, whose unit generated 32 yards rushing on 32 attempts and surrendered three first-quarter sacks in the loss to the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide.
“On the year, total, there hasn’t been a bunch of winning performances,” Mahoney said. “There have been guys that are too inconsistent.”
The No. 18-ranked Vols haven’t been able to settle on a starting offensive line. Injuries and inconsistent play have led to five different starting units in seven games.
It’s hard to say how Tennessee (5-2, 2-2 SEC) will line up when it returns to action Oct. 29 at South Carolina (2-4, 1-4).
Coach Butch Jones said he expects most of the injured players to be back for the Gamecocks.
“We have a tremendous group of men in that room that I believe in and we believe in,” Mahoney said. “We obviously have to get better in a hurry with the final stretch coming.”
Even with an elusive quarterback like Josh Dobbs, Tennessee has averaged only 3.98 yards per rush attempt, which ranks above only Vanderbilt and South Carolina in the SEC.
The Vols have been committed to trying to establish the run, but they’re averaging 169.5 yards on the ground per game, 11th best in the league.
“We didn’t develop the consistency in the fall camp with guys playing numerous spots,” Mahoney said. “Just touching on that, you look at the Florida, Georgia and Texas A&M stretch, that was as consistent as we had been through practice and playing.
“But fall camp, we never got into any kind of continuity as a group while trying to identify some guys with some positions.”
Tennessee has also failed to develop some players who came in as highly rated recruits.
Charles Mosley, a 6-4, 348-pound defensive tackle who was rated a four-star recruit in 2014, is a redshirt sophomore who has yet to start a game.
Drew Richmond, a 6-5, 301-pound top 100 player from Memphis, started the first two games of this season before losing his job.
“The weight room, fundamentals, technique, being assignment sharp against an opponent is of the utmost importance,” Mahoney said, carrying on with the priorities for his position group. “I want to take this moving forward and have guys growing up in a hurry.”
Mahoney said senior Dylan Wiesman, who was knocked out of the Texas A&M game with a concussion and missed the Alabama game, has been the most consistent player this season.
Junior Coleman Thomas, who started in place of Wiesman at center against Alabama, has overcome ankle injuries to get back on the field.
“He has to (step up and be a leader) and we’ve put the pressure on him last week,” Mahoney said. “I said, ‘Hey, it’s your time to take ahold of this thing, and you’ve got to be the bell cow as the center,’ for one, and for the situation we’re in, he has to step up and be that guy.”
Wiesman is expected to return for the South Carolina game, but Thomas might hold the center spot, depending on the lineup Mahoney sees fit.
Jones places great trust in Mahoney, who was on his original staff at Central Michigan in 2007.
“We’re a work in progress; we’ve got to get better,” Mahoney said. “You can say you have four starters returning, but those four guys still have to be able to compete and win their position.”
For whatever reasons, Tennessee’s offensive linemen have not been as competitive as expected this season.