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Tennessee dealing with uncertainty on both sides of line

(AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

By STEVE MEGARGEE

AP Sports Writer

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee's outlook on each side of the line of scrimmage remains as uncertain as ever with just over two weeks left before the start of the season.

In some respects, the situation has only grown foggier.

Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said late last week that "I don't think we're anywhere close to finding a first group of five" on the offensive line as the Volunteers attempt to boost an offense that has produced the Southeastern Conference's fewest yards per game each of the past two seasons.

There's perhaps even more reason for concern on the defensive front heading into the Aug. 31 opener with Georgia State.

Tennessee has no returning starters on the defensive line and lost its most experienced performer at that spot when Emmit Gooden tore his right anterior cruciate ligament last week.

"Both sides of the ball are just very inconsistent," Pruitt said of the line play this week.

The Vols would have a clearer picture of where they stand on both sides of the line if they could get answers to a couple of questions.

Junior tackle Trey Smith is clearly Tennessee's top offensive lineman, but he missed the final five games last season after blood clots were found in his lungs and his status for this season remains uncertain.

Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon is a former five-star recruit who could boost Tennessee's defensive line, but the NCAA hasn't announced whether it will grant him a waiver enabling him to avoid sitting out this season.

That just leads to more uncertainty as both lines search for stability.

Tennessee's offensive line returns five players who made at least five starts last season, but that statistic is a tad misleading because some started out of necessity because of injury and might not stay atop the depth chart. That list also includes Smith, who might not play this year.

The Vols signed two freshman tackles rated as five-star recruits in Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright , but their depth has taken a hit with six offensive linemen leaving the team for medical reasons since the end of last season.

Tennessee has been mixing and matching combinations on the line throughout camp. Center Brandon Kennedy says all those moves won't hinder the line in its attempt to establish a rhythm and instead could help in providing versatility.

"Having multiple guys who can play different positions, that's really helpful when you get into the season," Kennedy said.

At least the offensive line has experience. The only healthy defensive linemen who made a tackle for Tennessee last season are Matthew Butler and John Mincey, who combined for 18 overall stops and four solos.

Pruitt said this week that his defensive linemen are still honing basic skills such as lining up the proper way and compared it to "basically playing with your eyes shut." The focus on the fundamentals caused Pruitt to say most of his defensive linemen are "still in elementary school" as far as learning what to do on the field.

"Hopefully this next week we can get to junior high and the next week we can get like we're in high school and eventually be on the college level before the season's over with ... just in knowing those things," Pruitt said.

Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top lineman during his playing career at Auburn, says he has found some reason for optimism. Rocker said converted tight end LaTrell Bumphus has made an impression as a pass rusher and that Greg Emerson has stood out as a run stopper.

But this line's inexperience is apparent in its up-and-down practice performance.

"You do see potential," Rocker said. "It's like a rollercoaster. It'll start and you'll think, `Oh, man, we're going to have a great one.' Then it will come down and then it goes back up. The biggest thing is we're trying to work to be consistent."

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Updated August 15, 2019

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