KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s offensive line depth could lift the Vols into contention this season, even if they aren’t close to settling the starting five.
Offensive line coach Walt Wells says Tennessee is in “plug and play” mode after last Friday’s disclosure that projected starting right tackle Chance Hall will undergo season-ending knee surgery.
The Vols, even with Hall out, return six players who have started a combined 98 games over the course of their careers.
Three more offensive linemen have been held out as a precaution — including projected starters Brett Kendrick and Trey Smith — so Wells is using the opportunity to move players around.
“Coleman Thomas and Jack Jones and a variety of guys have played different positions,” Wells said. “The one that has probably done a lot is Devante Brooks. He’s played three different spots.”
Brooks was originally signed as a tight end, but he’s grown into an offensive lineman who has played at tackle, guard and center.
The 6-foot-5, 282-pound Brooks doesn’t figure to be in the mix to start, but his versatility could get him into the rotation with a strong fall camp.
“I think we’ve got seven to nine guys that can play,” Wells said, asked how deep the offensive line rotation might go this season.
The Vols started seven different offensive line combinations last season on account of injuries.
As for the three players currently being held out, Wells doesn’t seem too concerned.
“We’re going to get them back, it’s just a matter of time,” he said, “and it’s going to be a short matter time.”
Projected starting Tennessee O-Line
LT: Drew Richmond
LG: Jack Jones
C: Jashon Robertson
RG: Trey Smith
RT: Brett Kendrick
Of course, there’s plenty of ongoing competition, with sophomores Marcus Tatum and Venzell Boulware making a push, and Coleman Thomas a capable senior when healthy. Redshirt freshman Ryan Johnson is another swing player, capable of playing guard and center.
Wells, in his first season as offensive line coach after Coach Butch Jones fired former O-Line coach Don Mahoney after last season, doesn’t sound like he’s in any hurt to set the starting five.
“I would say as we get ready to go into the game week after the final scrimmage we should know,” Wells said. “(We want to) give everybody a chance to compete all the way to the end — as we settle into game week that Monday we should know where we’re at.”
Tennessee opens the season at 8 p.m. on Sept. 4 in Atlanta against Georgia Tech.