Tennessee offensive linemen gain attention amid competition

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee's offensive linemen are gaining notoriety by joking about their relative anonymity.

The offensive linemen started a Twitter account titled Life In The Shadows (OLPShadows) that is made up of photos in which they stare into the camera while the background shows Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs giving an interview or posing for a different picture alongside fans. In many instances, the fans apparently either hadn't noticed the linemen or asked one to take a picture of Dobbs for them.

''We made it as a joke and got Dobbs to retweet it or say something about it, and it's got over 4,000 followers now,'' junior tackle Brett Kendrick said. ''It's been fun. We're working our way out of the shadows.''

If only they knew which of them would be working their way onto the field this fall.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones has emphasized competition across the offensive line. Tennessee is still sorting out the right combination of five linemen with the Sept. 1 opener against Appalachian State less than three weeks away.

''It's a good thing,'' offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. ''It's guys coming out every day knowing there's no time for anyone to feel comfortable. That's where you want to be in a place like this. It should be that way.''

The players apparently don't mind the discomfort.

''It's just making us better as a unit, as players, as even men, just knowing that we have to go out each day and compete for our job,'' sophomore tackle Chance Hall said.

Tennessee has much more experience in the middle of the line than on the outside.

Junior guard Jashon Robertson has made 23 starts over the last two seasons and has been praised by Mahoney for his consistency throughout training camp. Senior guard Dylan Wiesman started all 13 games at guard last season and earned second-team all-Southeastern Conference honors. Junior Coleman Thomas also had 13 starts last season - 12 at center and one at right tackle - but still faces competition this summer.

Mahoney said Thomas started training camp slowly while dealing with the flu but has come on strong lately.

Tennessee's versatility on the line gives the Vols plenty of options at center. Sophomore Jack Jones made one start at guard last season but also can play center. Wiesman also could move to center if necessary.

But the biggest uncertainty is at the tackle spots as Tennessee attempts to replace two-year starter Kyler Kerbyson.

Hall, redshirt freshman Drew Richmond and Kendrick are the top three candidates for the two starting spots. Kendrick made five starts at right tackle last season and had two starts at left tackle in 2014. Hall started Tennessee's final seven games at right tackle as a freshman last season but missed spring practice to recover from a shoulder injury. Richmond, who was rated as a five-star prospect by Rivals, believes he got better while sitting out last season.

''I just learned how to work harder, how to grow, pay more attention to detail ... to be a good player in this conference,'' Richmond said.

Mahoney said Richmond has been focusing on left tackle and Hall has been working primarily on the right side while Kendrick could play either spot.

Jones said he isn't putting a timetable on when he wants to decide on his starting five.

''In the offensive line, you don't have a starting five,'' Jones said. ''We need a starting six, seven, eight. In this conference, with the level of physicality, that's the way I look at it''

Whichever combination ends up on the field, that group will try to build on the momentum established last season when Tennessee ranked second in the SEC in rushing and won its final six games. That late-season surge has put Tennessee in the spotlight as it heads into 2016 as the SEC Eastern Division favorite.

Much of that attention has gone to the guy the linemen are trying to protect. Through the power of social media, they've found a way to make the most of the situation.

''If our quarterback's getting a lot of attention that means we're doing something right,'' Kendrick said. ''Keep him healthy and being able to walk around and (pose for) those pictures.''

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AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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