With great expectation comes great condemnation. That's not lost on Tennessee's vaunted offensive linemen, who heap as much of the offense's burden and blame on their shoulders as anybody.
So when questions swirled around them all following last Saturday's total of 66 rushing yards and fewer than three yards per carry against Florida, they didn't mince words. Senior tackle Ja'Wuan James knows the Gators' defensive line won more battles than the Vols up front.
"Right now, our offense isn't doing a great job at all," James said. "As a leader, as a senior, I've got to make sure to direct guys in the right direction and lead as I can so we can help the defense out."
There are myriad reasons for Tennessee's offensive struggles against quality competition—from a lack of big plays to a failed quarterback change—but, regardless, the Volunteers' vaunted offensive line has not lived up to massive expectations.
They've not been dominant, especially in the running game. In some cases, they've been flat-out whipped.
The Vols began the season with 315 rushing yards against Austin Peay and 240 against Western Kentucky. In the past two games against ranked opponents, however, UT has just 244 total rushing yards. The Vols have also struggled mightily in short-yardage situations.
Butch Jones told the media he wants his offensive line to be more physical.
They’ve been challenged because they’ve played two of the better defensive lines in the country with Oregon and Florida; they’re disruptive. We still have to get more physical. I said it when I came in here and watched film, and I’ve challenged them, and they’re very prideful.
But it’s a pad level, it’s finishing plays, and I think everyone thinks our line should just dominate their opponent on every single play, and if it’s a four-yard gain...it’s not a good yard gain. Four-yard gains are good, and we’re playing good defensive fronts. I thought we took some strides moving forward. I thought we protected the passer much better in the second half, but I need more in terms of a level of physicality and finishing plays, and they understand that and they know that, and we’ll continue to work on that.
The offensive line has been pushed around at times, but there are deep-rooted offensive issues contributing to the struggles. The Vols' year-long inability to produce anything downfield has led to teams stacking the box.
When a team as talented as Florida creeps its safeties up to stop the run, most teams would fail to block it. The Vols have not done enough in the passing game to keep teams honest.
It's not a mistake that on each of Tennessee's two second-half scoring drives against UF, the Vols had a big passing play to loosen up the defense. Said Jones:
The (lack of) big plays is hurting everyone. Everybody wants to point to our offensive line, but it’s the entire offense. When you don’t have big, explosive plays, you can’t be perfect—I say it week in, week out—in the world of college football. You need big, chunk plays.
That doesn't change the fact that UT's offensive line must play better. There are at least four legitimate NFL prospects on the offensive front. While James and Antonio "Tiny" Richardson are the ones most talked about by NFL draft pundits, guard Zach Fulton has graded out higher than either in all four games.
With all that talent, UT should be more dominant up front. It's something that Fulton said continues to fuel the group.
We’re always hungry. We’ve never been content. We know there are a lot of guys are out to prove that they’re good against us because we’ve had a lot of accolades this offseason. We’re going to forget about that and play every down like it’s our last.
All quotes were transcribed from videos posted on UTSports.com.