KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's offensive linemen have taken their lumps over the last two years from opposing pass rushers, the media and even their own fans.
They've received much of the blame for Tennessee's recent failings. By the end of the season, they want to make sure they're seen as a reason for the program's resurgence.
"Just tired of losing," junior tackle Marcus Tatum said. "It's really embarrassing to go out there and everybody just blames it on us — and it usually is our fault most of the time. We just want to make a difference. We don't want to be that whole excuse of why we're losing, why this university's falling apart."
While the last part of Tatum's comment may be overstating things a bit, Tennessee is coming off two straight losing seasons and ranked last in the Southeastern Conference in yards per game each of those years.
"Everybody doesn't say it, but they all feel it in the back of their head," Tatum said. "It's kind of like anger. A lot of the negativity around this school and like the football team has been on us, so it's time to change it."
Tennessee's offensive line remains a major concern heading into the Aug. 31 season opener with Georgia State even after the Volunteers added two five-star freshman tackle recruits to a group that includes plenty of returning starters.
Offensive line coach Will Friend acknowledged those veteran linemen needed to build their confidence after so many setbacks.
"The truth of the matter is those guys haven't had a lot of success," Friend said. "Like in anything else, confidence is a big part of what you're trying to do in being successful. I think with being confident, a lot of it is growing, being stronger, knowing what to do better. It allows you to be more confident."
Friend said his offensive line is deeper and more physical now.
The Volunteers signed freshman tackles Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright, who are both challenging for starting spots. Center Brandon Kennedy is healthy again after a knee injury caused him to play only one game last season. Tennessee could get an even bigger boost if Trey Smith is cleared to play after his 2018 season ended early due to blood clots in his lungs.
Smith, arguably Tennessee's best overall player, earned second-team all-SEC honors as a freshman and started the Vols' first seven games at left tackle last season.
With or without Smith, the Volunteers have enough linemen that they might not stick with the same five guys throughout the game.
"I think we'll probably play eight to 10 guys," coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "I really do. I think there's going to be that many guys that deserve to play. I think we're going to need to play that many guys."
Of course, using that kind of rotation also would indicate Tennessee hasn't had five linemen stand out from the rest.
"Nobody's really just jumped out and said, 'I'm the guy. Hey, you can't get me off the field really,' " Friend said. "They've all had days. Also, we'd like to play as many people as possible. That's always been my philosophy and coach Pruitt's, too."
While the addition of Morris and Wright should help, the Vols also need upperclassmen such as Tatum to improve.
Tatum says he's gained 30 pounds since the end of last season — eating 12 or 13 peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches a week at one point — to get up to 321 pounds. He joins Jerome Carvin, Jahmir Johnson, Ryan Johnson and Smith as linemen who made at least five starts last season. Smith's status remains uncertain, but the other four linemen are all back this year and competing for playing time.
They've heard the complaints that accompany lopsided losses and stalled drives. They're eager to produce results that turn castigation into adulation.
"It's time for us to get this program turned around and going in the right direction," Friend said. "The only way for them to gain confidence is to do it, do it right and do it well. Anything else is just going to be talking about it."
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