Scouting Tennessee: Vols’ offensive line preparing for matchup vs. Gators

Tennessee offensive lineman Trey Smith (73) blocks against Brigham Young defensive lineman JJ Nwigwe (88) in the Sept. 7 game in Knoxville, Tenn. [Wade Payne/Associated Press]

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee has used three different starting offensive lines in as many games as the Volunteers try to find an effective combination.

That unsettled unit faces the team that leads all Football Bowl Subdivision programs in sacks when Tennessee opens Southeastern Conference competition Saturday at No. 9 Florida.

It’s undoubtedly a tough chore for a line that’s still trying to find itself. Center Brandon Kennedy is the only offensive lineman who has started at the same position in each of Tennessee’s first three contests.

“I just put the responsibility on me of getting everyone on the same page and being able to communicate and be that guy who leads,” Kennedy said.

Florida (3-0, 1-0 SEC) already has recorded 16 sacks this season and will present a formidable challenge, though the Gators could be missing two of their top defensive players this week with end Jabari Zuniga and cornerback C.J. Henderson battling ankle injuries.

The Gators opened the season by collecting a school-record 10 sacks in a 24-20 victory over Miami. That marked just the eighth time since the start of the 2015 season that an FBS team recorded as many as 10 sacks in a game.

“We knew what we wanted to accomplish coming into the year,” Florida outside linebacker Jonathan Greenard said. “We wanted to establish ourselves as the No. 1 defensive line in the SEC.”

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Florida’s pass rush is its balance. Eight Gators have recorded at least one sack and nobody has collected more than Zuniga’s three.

Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said a big step toward solving Florida’s pass rush is to avoid getting into obvious passing situations.

“The first thing is we need to be able to run the football,” Pruitt said. “If you can run the football and stay ahead of the sticks a little bit so they can’t pin their ears back and go. We’ve got to be able to run the football. We’ve got to be creative probably with different things and protections, whether we’re chipping or leaving a back in or something like that.

“We’ve got to be efficient offensively. We’ve got to get the ball out of our hand and know where we’re going with the ball and spread it around.”

While Florida’s defensive front has dominated, Tennessee’s offensive line is a work in progress.

Trey Smith has been working his way back after missing Tennessee’s last five games a year ago after blood clots were discovered in his lungs. The Vols (1-2, 0-0) also have been testing the readiness of freshmen Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright.

Tennessee’s starting offensive line for the season-opening loss to Georgia State featured Morris at left tackle, Ryan Johnson at left guard, Kennedy at center, Riley Locklear at right guard and Marcus Tatum at right tackle. Kennedy stayed at center and Tatum remained at right tackle against BYU while the rest of the starting line featured Jahmir Johnson at left tackle, Smith at left guard and Ryan Johnson at right guard.

In its 45-0 shutout of Chattanooga last week, Morris took over for an injured Jahmir Johnson at left tackle as part of a first-team line that also included Smith at left guard, Kennedy at center, Wright at right guard and K’Rojhn Calbert at right tackle. Wright and Calbert made their first career starts.

“I knew it was going to be like this going into the season,” Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano said. “It’s really not my call. I trust and believe in coach (offensive coordinator Jim) Chaney and (offensive line) coach (Will) Friend. I believe they’re always going to put out the best five.”

That line slowly is gaining confidence.

After getting outrushed 213-93 and allowing four sacks in the stunning loss to Georgia State, Tennessee has averaged 218.5 yards rushing and has yielded a total of one sack over its last two games. Kennedy says the Vols have stopped making the communications that hindered them earlier.

Of course, one of those games was against an overmatched Football Championship Subdivision opponent. The real measure of this line’s improvement comes Saturday.