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Versatility, depth help Tennessee rebuild its offensive line
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee offensive lineman Ryan Johnson grew up in a family of home builders and sees plenty of parallels in what he's doing now.

"When you're building an offensive line, you've got to do it just like you're building a house," said Johnson, a civil engineering major and SEC Academic Honor Roll selection. "You've got to build the foundation. ... You've got to pick the foundation before you start picking paint colors."

One year after its foundation crumbled, Tennessee's offensive line is trying to rebuild itself into a competitive and physical group again. Plenty of work remains to be done.

New Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt understands that as well as anyone. The former Alabama defensive coordinator saw his units practice against the Crimson Tide's championship-caliber offensive lines. Tennessee isn't close to that point.

"We're nowhere (near) where we need to be," Pruitt said.

Pruitt said that's partially because Tennessee has been testing players at multiple positions to increase the line's versatility. Tennessee needed that kind of resourcefulness last year, when injuries and defections devastated the Vols up front.

Tennessee had to burn the redshirt of Riley Locklear late last season just to have enough available bodies to make it through a game. The decimation of the line took a toll, as the Volunteers went 15 straight quarters without an offensive touchdown at one point.

By the end of the season, one of Tennessee's starting tackles was Devante Brooks, a redshirt freshman who hadn't played any football games since his sophomore year in high school because knee injuries had sidelined him as a junior and senior.

The addition of Alabama graduate transfer Brandon Kennedy and the anticipated return of Chance Hall from injury give Tennessee more options. The Vols welcome the change.

"Competition's a really good thing," Johnson said. "We've been really pushing each other hard to improve together and individually."

Tennessee's chances of improving rest in part on whether it can get a full season from preseason all-Southeastern Conference selection Trey Smith, who missed spring practice with blood clots in his lungs . Pruitt said at the start of training camp that Smith should be cleared for contact around Aug. 19-20.

The Vols also need a successful comeback from Hall, who has 13 career starts but was limited to six games in 2016 due to injury and didn't play at all last season as he recovered from knee surgery.

Tennessee already is benefiting from the arrival of Kennedy, who didn't play much at Alabama but has emerged as the likely starting center for the Vols. He joins a line that returns six players who made at least two starts last season: Drew Richmond, Marcus Tatum, Locklear, Smith, Brooks and Johnson.

"Pruitt, he's bringing a winning mindset here," Kennedy said. "Me, I just want to bring the leadership and experience I've had as a championship player to Tennessee."

Tennessee must figure out which combination works best before its Sept. 1 season opener with West Virginia at Charlotte, North Carolina. Smith's versatility plays a role in this because he can play anywhere on the line. Coaches may just stick Smith wherever the Vols have the greatest need.

The new staff has experimented with different linemen at different spots. It may not help in the short term as the line struggles to establish a rhythm, but it could prove handy in the long run.

"I think the closer you get, (as) you start figuring out who the top 7 or 8 guys or maybe 9-10 guys are, you can kind of create a little bit more of a unit that's used to playing together," Pruitt said. "You may have a guy that's playing center one day, and the next day he might play left guard and the next day he might play right tackle.

"You need to do that to build depth on the offensive line."

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