KNOXVILLE — Don Mahoney isn’t used to a unit with this much experience.
Tennessee’s offensive line coach presided over future NFL linemen Ja’Wuan James and Antonio Richardson in 2013, yet Mahoney still believes UT’s current crop is “as good a situation as we’ve been in.”
No doubt, one of Tennessee’s preeminent strengths in 2016 is its depth along the offensive line. Head coach Butch Jones acknowledged it Monday, and Mahoney reiterated Jones’ comments Wednesday, saying, “it’s a good situation, but it’s a work in progress.”
The Vols have 13 scholarship linemen, including three freshmen tackles, so their numbers “are something we haven’t had on a regular basis (here),” Mahoney explained.
Tennessee returns three full-time starters with a combined 56 starts — right guard Dylan Wiesman, center Coleman Thomas and left guid Jashon Roberston — and a number of other veterans with extensive experience. Redshirt freshman Drew Richmond, Chance Hall, who started seven games at right tackle last season, and Brett Kendrick are in a heated three-way battle for the starting job at left tackle.
With such a competitive group, Mahoney and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord are focused on playing the best five lineman this fall, so positional versatility has been emphasized early in camp.
DeBord noted that Kendrick, who started five games at right tackle in 2015, has swung between both tackle spots and guard already this preseason.
“We’re going to end up with the best five guys,” DeBord said.
“Whoever that is. We’ll play the best five.”
While Tennessee’s coaches have an idea of who their top seven or eight lineman are, the Vols will continue to creatively shuffle players throughout camp — mainly as a precaution for the fall. The Vols don’t want to get caught in a situation like last season, scrambling for starters after a couple injuries.
“We’ve got guys working to play multiple positions because through the course of the season — just as we went through last year — in about five days we lost two linemen, so you’ve always got to be prepared for the unknowns,” Mahoney said.
“Not thinking in a negative light, but if that were to happen, what’s our plan?”
Now Tennessee has one.
As for the rest of camp, Mahoney is seeking consistency with his unit, especially in the competition to protect quarterback Josh Dobbs’ blindside. He wants his players focused on “every rep” and worrying about the results of who starts later.
Still, he pointed out that Richmond, a ballyhooed recruit in 2015, has looked “really good” early in training camp.
“He’s really been making strides,” Mahoney said.
Jesse Simonton covers Tennessee football and recruiting for SEC Country.