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Coach's Corner: Can Will Friend's unit be the strength of the Tennessee football team in the 2020 season?

A look at Will Friend's position group in 2020

In this edition of the Coach's corner we take a look at how Will Friend's offensive line has surged with production, and if the position group can be the strength of the team in 2020.

The Facts

When Jeremy Pruitt hired Will Friend on his first staff in Knoxville, he was already regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches in the country. He had made a name for himself as a coach after serving as the offensive line coach and eventual run game coordinator at Georgia during a four-year stint there. The former two-time All-SEC guard, from his playing days at Alabama, then rejoined former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, at Colorado State. Where Bobo had earned the head coaching job with the Rams, Friend was brought in as the offensive line coach and offensive coordinator. The Rams had the 11 ranked offense in the country in 2017, Friend's last season with the program before returning to the SEC with his old friend Pruitt. While Friend and Pruitt being close had a great deal to do with Will Friend ending up on the staff in Knoxville, Friend had solidified a well-earned reputation across the country as one of the nation's best O Line coaches. That Friend gave up his offensive coordinator title to come back to the SEC was also interesting. Friend checked all the résumé boxes when he was hired in Knoxville, but he would be embarking on the toughest test of his career on Rocky Top.

Some things are best said bluntly. Tennessee's offensive line in the 2017 season was abysmal. They struggled to run block, pass protect, communicate, or stay healthy. The only exception to this was then-true freshman Trey Smith, who was a Freshman All-American and looked to be living up to his lofty recruiting ranking. Apart from Smith, when Friend arrived at Tennessee, he had precious little to work with on the returning roster. The abysmal season for the Vols in 2017 combined with the now infamous coaching search that eventually brought Pruitt and Friend to Tennessee left them very little time to recruit before the first Early Signing Period began. Pruitt and Friend were able to land some quality linemen in the 2018 class, but some priority targets, like five-star Knox Catholic product Cade Mays, went elsewhere. Tennessee did bring in some heralded additions in the 2018 class for Friend's line in four-star Jerome Carvin, JUCO four-star Jahmir Johnson, and four-star graduate transfer Brandon Kennedy from Alabama. There was optimism surrounding the group going into the 2018 season.

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Unfortunately for Friend and the Vols, much of the optimism of the 2018 season ended in disappointment, in no small part due to the enormous struggles of the offensive line group. First, a condition with blood clots in his lungs robbed Trey Smith of the off-season between his freshman and sophomore years. Smith also had some adjustments to make while attempting to settle in as the new left tackle for Tennessee. It was as Smith was beginning to look at home in his new spot and starting to look like his dominant self that the blood clots returned after a huge win at Auburn, and ended his sophomore campaign. Kennedy, another of the reasons for so much excitement in the preseason, was lost for the season in the first game of the year against West Virginia. The Vols, already inexperienced and learning new schemes before the loss of two players expected to start, were plagued by injuries in 2018. On a unit already lacking depth and talent, thanks in no small part to multiple linemen retiring early due to injuries, the Vols struggled all of 2018, especially in pass protection. The Tennessee offensive line was one of the worst in the nation in 2018, and it meant that there was enormous pressure on Friend to make vast strides with the unit going into 2019.

Making strides is precisely what Tennessee's offensive line did in 2019, thanks in no small part to an excellent recruiting class for the group in the 2019 class, as well as the players Friend and Pruitt brought into the program in 2018 taking steps forward. Tennessee added a pair of five-star offensive tackles in Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright, both of whom were starters for the Vols and Freshman All Americans. The pair played as well as advertised, and as well as any coach could ask of his freshmen. They helped to solidify the tackle positions for Tennessee, and fellow 2019 signee Chris Akporoghene added depth to the position. Tennessee also returned a now medically cleared and healthy Trey Smith, returning to his home at the guard spot. Smith looking like his All-American self showed and playing a complete season altered the complexion of the Tennessee line. Further strengthening the Tennessee front was the return of Brandon Kennedy to the center spot. Kennedy became a leader for the Vols, and played exceptionally well for them down the stretch. That left Carvin and Johnson as the primary starters at right guard, meaning that after only a single season on campus, four of the five starters on the offensive line were brought to Knoxville by Pruitt and Friend. The line developed into one of the strengths of the Tennessee team in 2019, protecting the passer dramatically better, as well as opening holes in the running game that allowed the Vols to salt away games. The vision of what a Will Friend offensive line looks like in Tennessee started to come into focus in 2019, and it is an effective vision.

The Big Question

Entering year three, Friend has shown that he is able to identify talented offensive linemen. He has also shown the ability to recruit elite players to Tennessee, as well as developing that talent when it arrives on campus. The combination of consistent recruiting and development have Friend's line facing a new challenge entering the 2020 season: Potentially being the strength of the team. How will Friend and this group respond to being not just asked to be good, but to be the best unit on the roster? That is the question that faces the Vols going forward, but they have momentum going in their favor. Trey Smith announced his emotional decision to return to Tennessee for his senior season. Already one of the best linemen in the nation, Smith will have a full off-season to prepare while healthy for the first time in his Tennessee career. Smith and fellow returning senior Brandon Kennedy are more than just two of the best players on the team, they are the unquestioned leaders. Morris and Wright will have an off-season to correct nagging injuries and physically develop further after playing an SEC schedule as true freshmen. While Carvin and Johnson will certainly continue to fight for the other starting spot at guard, another player is likely to figure in there. Cade Mays, after leaving for Georgia in the 2018 class, found his way to Tennessee after all. While Mays is subject to NCAA transfer rules, he is considered to have a strong case for immediate eligibility. The addition of Mays not only gives the Vols another talented linemen for Friend to work with and develop, it gives them the most quality depth as a unit they have had in recent memory.

The development Tennessee's offensive line has undergone from the day Will Friend was hired to the present is one of the most dramatic anywhere in the country. To recruit and develop a line from one of the worst in the nation to what could be one of the best in the SEC in so short a time, while landing players that fit the scheme and vision is nothing short of remarkable. Friend's unit is now the core of the leadership for this Tennessee team, as well as being one of the most talented. If Friend can continue to develop his line this season, taking the next step from a good unit to a great, potentially dominant one, then it will serve as the catalyst that allows Tennessee's program to turn the corner as a whole. Will Friend has faced enormous pressure every season he has been in Knoxville, and 2020 is no different in that regard. The change is that he is expected to bring a unit that plays at an elite level. History says this is the most difficult step to take, but it also shows that Friend has a plan in place to achieve just that.