Improved Line Paves the Way for Tennessee

Going into the 2015 season, the Tennessee Volunteers’ biggest cause for concern was the offensive line. The Vols finished last in the SEC in 2014 in both sacks allowed and tackles for loss allowed. There was never any consistency up front in 2014, as the Vols cycled through multiple players at each tackle spot and had injury issues at center. True freshman Jashon Robertson was the only player to start all 13 games at a single position (right guard). Head coach Butch Jones wanted to address the problem, and brought in experienced offensive line coach Mike DeBord in as his new offensive coordinator.

Tennessee returned everyone from 2014 with the exception of the graduated Jacob Gilliam, who finished the season as the starting right tackle, and also added some highly touted freshmen. With most of the line returning and more experienced, the hope would be that they would be improved. However, the Vols took a big hit when Marcus Jackson, the returning starter at left guard, was lost for the season with a bicep injury.

Many expected the Vols to be a national sleeper team in 2015, but for that to happen the offensive line had to improve. Saturday in Tennessee’s 59-30 win over Bowling Green, Tennessee fans saw the first sign that the line may actually be vastly improved. The Volunteers’ front dominated, paving the way to a fantastic 399 rushing yards, while keeping the pocket clean for quarterback Josh Dobbs. Doubters will say “It’s just Bowling Green. Wait till they play Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, etc…” and to some degree that is true. However, in 2014 this line struggled mightily against Utah State, Arkansas State, and Vanderbilt. To see them come out and dominate an inferior opponent is a very good sign. Tennessee looks significantly better yesterday than at any point all last season. There will be struggles when the Vols take on BCS opponents, but there were a lot of positives to take from the game.

After reviewing the film from Saturday, I wanted to take a quick look at each of the Vols starters and the impact they made.

LEFT TACKLE KYLER KERBYSON

Senior Kyler Kerbyson is the returning starter with the most experience and widely considered the best lineman on the roster. Kerbyson played almost every position on the line last season, but appears to have settled in at left tackle. He did not disappoint against Bowling Green, playing what was probably his best game as a Vol. He was awarded for the effort and was named the SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week.

As a run blocker, Kerbyson was the most consistent player for the Vols. There were no glaring mistakes, and he usually was able to control his man, whether blocking in a zone or gap scheme. Kerbyson was the one Vols lineman who could consistently drive defenders off the line. Kerbyson was the best lineman on the field and certainly deserving of his award. He had a handful of outstanding blocks that opened up big runs, including a few pancakes.

One thing we did not see from Kerbyson was his pulling ability, He was the only starter to not pull at any point.  He did, however, show nice athleticism and body control when he had to block the second level on zone plays and screen passes. Based on his athleticism and ability to block in the open field, I am sure he is more than capable of pulling; the oppurtunity just never presented itself.

LEFT GUARD JASHON ROBERTSON

Besides Kerbyson, left guard Jashon Robertson is the most highly thought of lineman on the team. Robertson was a Freshman All-SEC player a year ago when he started every game at right guard as a true freshman. However, he shifted over to the left side when senior Marcus Jackson went down with an injury in fall camp.

Robertson is good at just about everything. He is a big mauler who is a force to deal with when he gets running downhill. As a pulling guard, Robertson is very effective. In this first clip, he opens up room for running back Alvin Kamara to get to the edge on the pin and pull sweep. In the second he takes out both linebackers for Josh Dobbs.

Robertson is very strong and does a good job of controlling defensive linemen at the point of attack.

Robertson needs to get more consistent and still gets beat too often, but overall he does a really good job of blocking and is just as talented as any lineman on the roster.

CENTER COLEMAN THOMAS

Coleman Thomas was the most pleasant surprise of the game for me. The sophomore struggled at right tackle in 2014, but appears to be right at home at center. In his first career start at center, Thomas jumped out on film. When reaching or blocking down, he was usually able to control the defensive tackle across from him.

Where Thomas really stood out was as a puller. In the Vols new pin and pull sweep play (read more here), Thomas was often called upon to pull around and lead the running back around the edge. The key part of the pin and pull blocking scheme is the pull blocks on the edge. Thomas was by far Tennessee’s most effective blocker in this scheme on Saturday.

This is a tough task that not many centers are asked to complete. Very few centers are athletic enough to be effective as a puller. Snapping the ball is tough enough as it is, much less when you immediately have to sprint around the edge as the lead blocker following the snap. Thomas executed admirably however, showing off impressive athleticism. When asked about Thomas’ speed, Kamara said “’Man, Coleman is almost faster than me getting out there.”

The Vols coaches and players raved about Thomas’ performance on Saturday. Coach Butch Jones was very pleased with Thomas, pointing out that he threw the key block for two touchdowns.

“Well, Coleman is an individual that has continued to progress and get better and better and center is his natural position. His athletic ability and with him being able to pull and get out on the edge — whether it was blocking a corner or linebacker, he at the point of attack blocked for two of our touchdowns, he was directly responsible. I thought he managed the game in terms of calling out the fronts, getting us in the right blocking schemes. He’s very athletic and he has some size. For him making his first career start at center, we thought he played really well.”

As Jones said, Thomas did an excellent job of using his athleticism to get outside and block on the edge.

Thomas brings rare athleticism to the center position and his addition to the starting lineup will do the Vols wonders.  No defender wants to see a 6’5, 300 pound athlete bearing down on them in the open field, but that is exactly what Thomas is capable of.

RIGHT GUARD DYLAN WIESMAN

Dylan Wiesman surprised many Vol fans as a late addition to the starting lineup. The junior impressed coaches in practice as a true freshman at guard, and has been a two-year starter on the punt team. However, a move to center last year and some lingering injuries cause Wiesman to struggle, and his performance in two late season starts was poor. Now with a move back to his natural position of guard, Wiesman appears much improved.

As a run blocker, Wiesman is a mauler who is best when asked to block down in a gap scheme (like counter). He did a good job of getting his hands on a defender and controlling him long enough for running lane to open. While he wasn’t as consistent as Kerbyson, Wiesman was just as good at driving defenders back and had some pancakes of his own. Here are some clips of Wiesman’s best blocks in the run game.

When asked to pull and kick out the defensive end, Wiesman does a pretty good job. His block was key to springing Kamara for a touchdown here.

However, Wiesman really struggles when he has to pull to the second level on the pin and pull sweep or inverted veer. He rarely was able to make his block in these situations. This play jumped out to me on Saturday. The blocking was outstanding and Josh Dobbs had a lot of room to run. However, Wiesman was unable to get a hand on the linebacker and Dobbs only gained two yards.

Wiesman Is a good run blocker when he can immediately get his hands on a defender and use his strength. However, he isn’t the most athletic player and seems to struggle to block in space.

RIGHT TACKLE BRETT KENDRICK

On the right side, Brett Kendrick had a solid game. The redshirt sophomore started the third game of his career, after starting twice at left tackle in 2014. As a run blocker, Kendrick was primarily a positive. The good was that he showed a nice ability to control defensive linemen once he got his hands on them. Kendrick didn’t have many flashy plays like Kerbyson or Thomas, but was a pretty effective blocker in the run game. He was often able to make solid blocks, like this one that opened up room for Dobbs to run.

The negative for Kendrick was that he struggled to engage defenders when he was called on as a puller in the open field.  Often when he was in space he would struggle to make his block, like on this run.

Overall, Kendrick did a good job. He didn’t stand out like the other linemen did at times, but he made a positive impact.

BACKUP RIGHT GUARD JACK JONES

While the point of this post was to evaluate the starters, I couldn’t help but mention true freshman Jack Jones. The rookie pushed to start in fall camp, but ultimately ended up losing the right guard battle to Wiesman. In limited action at the end of the game, Jones showed off incredible athleticism. As a pulling guard, Jones was able to get to the edge faster than any other Tennessee lineman. His speed jumped out at me. For a 300+ pound man, Jones moves very well and he will eventually be a valuable starting guard for the Vols.

While Jones has the athleticism, he still needs to refine his technique and get stronger. A year of gaining experience and strength will serve him well, and he will push to be an impact player for the Vols before too long

PASS PROTECTION

As for pass protection, I wanted to talk about the group as a unit, rather than individually. Overall the Vols linemen were outstanding in pass protection.  From left to right, the vols held up very well against the rush, which is a pleasant surprise since this team was dead last in the SEC in sacks allowed a season ago. Kerbyson appears very much improved at left tackle, and the interior line is stout. Kendrick managed to hold up one-on-one for the entire game. Wiesman would appear to be the weakest pass protector, but even he had a pretty good game. Plays like these with excellent pocket for Dobbs were the norm.

The only faults were one sack and two quarterback pressures. There was a miscommunication between Thomas and Robertson early in the game that led to a sack, and Thomas and Wiesman each gave up a pressure. Otherwise, the Vols were spotless up front.

He’s not a lineman, but you can’t talk about pass protection without mentioning running back Jalen Hurd. The 242 pound back had two huge knockdown blocks in pass protection.

Hurd is an outstanding blocker for a back, and fellow backfield mate Kamara also had a very good game pass protecting.

Overall, the Vols played an outstanding game up front. It was very nice to finally see a line that could assert their will at the point of attack. While there is still improvement to be made, and the Vols face a tough task this next weekend versus Oklahoma, it was good to see this dominating performance by a group with a lot of questions.

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2 thoughts on “Improved Line Paves the Way for Tennessee

  1. Well-written review — especially the point you made about our struggles last season against Utah State, Arkansas State, and Vanderbilt.

    The offense played well, and I especially liked that we didn’t get “too cute” with the play-calling — we stuck with what was working.

    Worried about the defense, tho.

    Like

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