As if the Tennessee Volunteers offensive line wasn't already riddled with question marks after some season-opener struggles, head coach Butch Jones delivered a round of gut-shot news Tuesday:
Starting left tackle Jacob Gilliam will miss the remainder of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered against Utah State.
Gilliam's injury only worsens issues UT knows it must address immediately along the offensive front. Despite a rousing 38-7 domination of Utah State, the Vols' line performance—particularly in the run game—was a big, hairy mole on an otherwise supermodel start to the season.
Senior quarterback Justin Worley was sacked twice and pressured on numerous other occasions. Most glaring was the run game inefficiency, however. Tennessee averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, finishing with 110 yards on 39 rushes.
Though UT continued to run throughout the game, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian leaned heavily on the short passing game to cover the blemishes.
It's the kind of start that wasn't difficult to predict, considering UT lost all five of its starting linemen.
Jones didn't bother sugarcoating the line's performance at his weekly press conference Tuesday. Though he noted he doesn't really look at the yards-per-carry metric, it was clear the Vols' revamped group didn't pass its first test.
There were about eight incidences where we were running the football, and we were one block away from a big play. A lot of times it's your backside cutoffs, your lineman not being on the proper defender. You have to be disciplined and stay low with your pad level. It's not just the offensive line. Sometimes, it may be the tight end on a combination block. It could be the back not making the proper read or the quarterback keeping it. There were a lot of single breakdowns. We are working to get that corrected.
The good news for UT is the issue is common for young lines learning to play together. The bad news is the Vols don't have a lot of time to get it fixed with a road trip to Oklahoma looming in two weeks, followed by an SEC gauntlet.
Now, they must correct those miscues without Gilliam, a hardworking, former walk-on, fifth-year senior who earned a scholarship for the first time this summer. The lineman from nearby Farragut High School went from feel-good story to line anchor when he solidified his starting role during camp.
With Gilliam gone, UT most likely will turn to redshirt freshman Brett Kendrick, another Knoxville product who reportedly came on toward the end of camp and more than held his own in Gilliam's stead Sunday.
At 6'6", 316 pounds, Kendrick has the ideal size for a tackle in Jones' power-spread system, but the athleticism is a work in progress.
Jones told Volquest.com's John Brice and Brent Hubbs (subscription required) that Kendrick would battle true freshman Coleman Thomas and Blair for the job:
[Kendrick has] continued to develop. He's done a good job of it. Now it's for real. He's taking coaching. He's listening to [offensive line coach Don] Mahoney. I'm starting to see a different mentality with them. He's not there yet, but I'm excited to see where he can take this. It's a concern from an overall depth standpoint, but the great thing is Brett Kendrick, Coleman Thomas and Dontavius Blair all have gotten some first-team reps.
The fallout from the Gilliam injury might not be as bad as it seems on the surface.
Though the Vols get much younger, they don't lose a lot in the way of experience or athleticism. Gilliam won the job for a reason, and that's his hard work and consistency—attributes that will be difficult to replace.
|Needing Ground Reinforcements in a Hurry|
|Rush Yards||Yards per carry||Rush 1Ds||Rush TDs|
|Tennessee 2013 (per game avg.)||188.4||4.9||9.8||1.5|
|Tennessee vs. Utah State||110||2.8||8||2|
Kendrick has plenty of ability, as do Thomas and Blair. The latter two of the trio were the tackle starters on the first day of spring drills.
But Blair struggled to adjust to the offensive scheme and tempo, and Thomas' grasp on the starting job loosened when fellow freshman Jashon Robertson's play demanded his insertion into the first team, bumping guard Kyler Kerbyson to Thomas' spot.
In an ideal world, Thomas and Blair would be able to develop throughout a redshirt season. Tennessee's offensive line situation is anything but ideal.
One positive, Jones told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) is whoever wins the job will be starting alongside UT left guard Marcus Jackson.
Despite the positive spin, Rucker told Bleacher Report there's no denying losing Gilliam stings.
"This definitely is a big blow for Tennessee, but it hurts the Vols more from a consistency and chemistry standpoint than it does from a pure talent standpoint, and more than anything, it really hurts their depth," Rucker said.
"They just don't have a lot of numbers there, and Gilliam had earned that position fair and square."
Football isn't fair, and now all Gilliam worked for was shredded with the twist of a knee. But, as Jones said, "that is football." Now, the Vols are forced to move on.
A bunch of star veterans are not going to run through the "T" in Neyland Stadium on Saturday. Jones and Mahoney have to patch-work that group and find a group of five that can get the job done.
With Gilliam a glorified cheerleader for the remainder of the season, that task just became a whole lot more difficult.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics gathered from CFBStats.com and quotes as well as observations obtained firsthand.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:
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