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Vols find success as Friend finds answers

by | Nov 1, 2019

When Will Friend came to Tennessee, he inherited an offensive line room that had its fair share of troubles. The first problem was nagging injuries, which was closely associated with players being well-below the average size of a typical SEC offensive lineman. A lack of development and skills, especially in the offensive system that Pruitt and staff were going to employ were a couple of more hindrances. Friend was given a large task and one that many thought he would easily be able to overcome because of his long-standing track record of success. That was not the case, as Friend’s unit struggled mightily in year one, and led to him catching a tremendous amount of criticism. The criticism of Friend and his unit waged on all the way into this season, with the offensive line being deemed as the biggest question mark on the team. The tide quickly turned, and Friend is showing once again why he is one of the better offensive line coaches in the country.

To not talk about the progression and production of this unit in year two, in the same essence it was talked about negatively in year one, would be a major gaffe. The resurgence of this unit started all the way back in May of 2018. On the first day of May, Tennessee received a pledge from five-star, offensive tackle, Wanya Morris. Morris never wavered on his commitment and would become the cornerstone of a class that boasted one of the best offensive line hauls in the country. The class was capped off with the addition of fellow five-star offensive tackle, Darnell Wright, on National signing day. These two guys were deemed the building block of Tennessee’s future before they ever stepped foot on campus.

These two joined up on Rocky Top with all of the physical tools that they needed to succeed with those lofty expectations. It is no secret that living up to the hype once you make the transition is not an easy one. Enter Will Friend. Under Friend, the dynamic duo has teamed up to revamp Tennessee’s offensive line, and are already on Freshmen All-American watch lists. Wright and Morris, along with Trey Smith and Brandon Kennedy, is one of the most highly rated offensive lines in the country. Mix in Jerome Carvin, Marcus Tatum, Jahmir Johnson, K’rjohn Calbert, and there is an extreme amount of potential.

Morris and Wright came onto campus physically ready than more than half of Tennessee’s returning linemen. That is what makes this project even more impressive for Friend. He got guys that were the most criticized last season to buy into what he was selling. He brought in an offensive line group from the recruiting trail that could contribute immediately, and in turn, he fostered an environment of competition that has pushed this group to new heights. In most instances, you can only go as far as your offensive line will let you, and right now, this offensive line is letting the skill players around them go as they will.

Friend’s unit has improved in nearly every facet of their game. They have improved their ability to run the ball, especially in the outside zone scheme, allowing running backs to consistently get to the second level. The biggest difference in this group is their ability to pass protect. Last season, in 12 games, Tennessee allowed 35 sacks. Those 35 sacks cost them 242 yards of offense. This season, through 8 games, the Volunteers have only 16 sacks for a total loss of 101 yards. They are currently 67th in the nation, which still evidences significant room for improvement, but is not indicative of the jump that was made from last season’s 113th overall finish.

Friend’s unit has been at the center of this mid-season turn around for the Vols, and they have answered a lot of criticism with their on-field production this season. For the first time in recent memory, I heard an ESPN announcer say, “Tennessee is just having their way up front on this drive.” That comment came in the second half of the Volunteer’s game against, at the time, number one Alabama. Friend will probably be the first to say that there is a long way left to go, and rightfully so, but it is becoming more clear each day that he has his unit headed in the right direction.

 

Feature Image via Will Friend’s Twitter

Matt Ray

Matt Ray

Recruiting Analyst

Matt Ray is the managing content editor for VR2. He founded VR2 in November of 2017. He is an FWAA Member and covers Tennessee prospects across the country from the Opening Regional Camp series to Under Armour All-American game and everything in between.

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