HOOVER, Ala. — Tennessee junior center Mack Crowder has heard it aplenty.
All five starters from Tennessee’s offensive line last season are now on NFL rosters. The group combined for 177 starts over the past few years for the Volunteers, including taking 92 percent of snaps last season. What once was considered a team strength has changed to major concern, especially considering Tennessee is trying to snap a skid of four straight losing seasons and three years without a bowl berth.
"I just use it as a little motivation," Crowder said of the constant reminder about the offensive line’s lack of experience. "It’s obviously going to be a challenge. It’s obviously a big opportunity for myself and whichever other four that may be lined up with me."
Not that Crowder and two fellow third-year juniors, left guard Marcus Jackson and right guard Kyler Kerbyson, haven’t been around. Crowder has played 10 games, starting one; Kerbyson played in every game last year and seven as a freshman; and Jackson played in all 24 games his first two seasons in Knoxville, including five starts as a freshman, before taking a redshirt last year.
"A lot of people overlook the fact that a lot of us have been playing together for the past three years," Crowder said. "Even though we have been in the background, that doesn’t mean we haven’t been playing together in practice and things like that. We just haven’t been getting the full-game reps. I believe that we are going to be a little further along than some people might think."
While the interior of the offensive line seems set, the wild card is at tackle, where the Volunteers have been spoiled. Right tackle Ja’Wuan James made 49 straight starts before being drafted No. 19 overall by the Miami Dolphins. Left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson was long considered first-round worthy, but concern over lingering knee issues caused him to go undrafted before signing as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings.
Also departed are right guard Zach Fulton, a sixth-round draft pick of the Chiefs; center James Stone, a free agent signee by the Falcons, and left guard Alex Bullard, who signed as a free agent with the Lions.
In filling the tackle slots, second-year Volunteers coach Butch Jones will turn to an incoming recruiting class of 32 signees that was ranked fourth nationally by Scout.com. Left tackle Dontavius Blair (6-foot-8, 313 pounds), a junior-college transfer, signed with Tennessee after considering offers from Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Florida State and Auburn. Right tackle hopeful Coleman Thomas (6-foot-6, 311 pounds), a true freshman, chose the Vols over West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Maryland and Pittsburgh.
"This is a group that has worked exceptionally hard," said Jones, whose team opens the season against visiting Utah State. "They’re going to have a tremendous opportunity in front of them."
Also in the mix are fifth-senior Jacob Gilliam, a former walk-on who has played in only three games; sophomore Dylan Wiesman, who played in 10 games last year as a true freshman, and redshirt freshmen Austin Sanders and Brett Kendrick.
"We’re all in the same boat," Crowder said. "We’re all in there working. All of us are getting better. Me, Marcus and Kyler try to prepare them the best we can for this upcoming season, letting them know, ‘Hey, you really need to get into the playbook. I don’t like the back of your (positioned) hands. Know the calls up front.’ So, whenever they do get in the game, they’ll be ready to go."
Certainly, playing behind the caliber of the departed quintet had to rub off on those roster returnees.
In fact, there are those who feel the interior trio could have already been starters at other SEC schools.
"It was tremendous to just be able to watch them and learn from them," Crowder said. "Every day, they worked hard, and you could always pick something up with technique or something that they did very well. All of them are probably going to be in the NFL. â¨… Just being able to watch them every day is always going to help the guys’ game that have been watching."
The offense appears to have plenty of weapons for probable starting quarterback Justin Worley. Fellow senior Marlin Lane and prized true freshman Jalen Hurd should make for a solid running backs tandem, while there is top-notch talent at wide receiver that includes sophomore standout Marquez North, sophomore Pig Howard and true freshman Josh Malone, one of the top signees in the country.
Just how well the offensive line performs in front of them will go a long way in figuring Tennessee’s success in 2014.