In our ever-growing series of Pack-Vols previews, BTP has brought you a UT season in review, a look at both the kicking game and return game, and an indispensably insightful wordplay that managed to get one confused Tennessee denizen banned from the message boards before he could bring further embarrassment to himself, his state, and his team. Though endlessly entertaining, nothing heretofore in the previews has given either team a clear advantage in the Chic-Fil-A Kickoff Classic.
A look at the big uglies up front isn't going to change that. The N. C. State and Tennessee offensive lines are, for the most part, mirror images of the other. Whether due to the lack of an explosive back, the offensive scheme, or lack of a nasty enough nasty streak, neither unit has been particularly successful in the plowing department. UT ranked near dead last (116th) in rushing yards per game, and the Pack were just 7 spots better. State's group was fairly sack prone, finishing 91st in sacks allowed per game, though that is somewhat mitigated by the offense's reliance on the passing game (35th in attempts per game). UT was also more pass heavy than the average team, finishing 52nd in attempts, making its 40th ranking in sacks allowed look respectable.
(Continue below the jump for a look at projected starters across both teams' lines.)
Tennessee's line, with 94 starts between the returnees, will likely be the most experienced group the Pack faces all season. Experience is usually a good thing, but given the unit's mediocre track record, it is hard to say to whose advantage it is that these guys are back.
The projected frontline:
LT: Antonio Richardson (SO 6-6, 329) A consensus 4-star prospect and the #1 rated player in Tennessee during the 2010 recruiting year, Richardson is the lone newcomer along the frontline. As he is entrusted with protecting Tyler Bray's blindside, the Vols better hope he lives up to the hype.
LG: Dallas Thomas (RS-SR 6-5, 300) A durable 2-year starter who has made 25 straight starts at left tackle, Thomas will slide inside to make room for Richardson.
C: Alex Bullard (RS-JR 6-2, 304) Bullard, a transfer from Notre Dame, returned to his home state and started every game a year ago. Six starts came at guard before he slid into the captain's role and started 6 games at center.
RG: Zach Fulton (JR 6-5, 319) One of 4 of Tennessee's top 6 linemen that did not redshirt, Fulton was highly touted out of high school. Both Scout and Rivals ranked him as the 14th best guard prospect in the country in 2009. He has gotten the starting nod in 15 straight games but was limited to stationary bike duties due to an injury this spring.
RT: Ja'Wuan James (JR 6-6, 320) Another highly ranked recruit, James was the #8 tackle prospect in 2009 according to Rivals, and he started immediately as a true freshman. Like Thomas, he's been durable, starting all 25 games of his career so far.
6th man: James Stone (JR 6-3, 310) Stone has started 15 games in his career and was a freshman All-American, but fell out of favor last year. He will likely only crack the starting lineup if injury strikes or if Richardson flops in his first year as a starter.
The beefy Tennessee unit averages just under 6-4 per man and 314 pounds. The Vols have 94 career starts between them. The Pack unit is a bit taller, but, despite their ranginess, averages nearly 7 pounds less per man. The veteran Pack unit has combined for an impressive 112 starts. But, again, given their past performance it is difficult to gauge whether or not having this group return is a strength or a weakness for the Pack.
The projected frontline:
LT: R.J. Mattes (RS-SR 6-6, 306) The only 4-year starter on offense for the Pack, Mattes has battled knee (ACL) and foot injuries to make 30 starts. A consensus 4-start prospect and top 25 tackle recruit, Mattes needs to stay healthy and cut down on his sacks allowed (9 in just over 2,000 snaps) to fulfill his considerable promise.
LG: Andrew Wallace (RS-SR 6-5, 304) Speaking of injuries, Wallace missed nearly all of last year recovering from an ACL tear. Back healthy, Wallace wrestled the starting job back from Duran Christophe this spring. Probably the least adept pass blocker of the unit, Wallace has allowed 7 sacks in just over 1,000 career snaps.
C: Camden Wentz (SR 6-3, 301) Perhaps generously listed at 6-3, 301, the captain of the line has usually protected his QB quite well. Wentz has allowed just 2 sacks in a career that spans 26 starts. Wentz, part of the Pack's Georgia pipeline, consistently grades out as one of the Pack's top linemen, including a perfect 100 against Maryland in 2010.
RG: Zach Allen (RS SR 6-3, 322) Allen is another member of the Georgia gang, where he was a two-time all-state selection in the talent rich state. With just under 2,100 snaps, Allen has more game experience than any other Pack lineman. He is the heaviest of the Pack 5 up front probably the unit's best run blocker.
RT: Rob Crisp (JR 6-7, 312) Though he is the program's most decorated and highly touted recruit in the TOB era, ranking as high as 13th overall in the 2009 class according to one recruiting service, Crisp has only made 3 starts over his first two years. He certainly has all the physical tools to play at the next level, and he has only yielded 1 sack so far in over 500 snaps, but Crisp seems to have struggled to slow the game down by mastering the complex mental aspects of line play. Hopefully this is his breakout season.
6th man: Duran Christophe (RS-JR 6-6, 302) Another member of the Georgia gang, Christophe started 12 games a year ago in Wallace's absence and has 13 total starts in his career. Christophe is an all-around better blocker than Wallace-he has allowed just one sack in his career-but he has been prone to drive-killing false starts. Christophe should push Wallace for playing time and be the first lineman off the bench if injury strikes.
It's a little disconcerting that the left side of the line has yielded 16 sacks in their careers. Especially if the sputtering running game issues persist, Mattes and Wallace must give QB Mike Glennon time to let his receivers get downfield without exposing him to a bone-crushing blindside hit. UT's unit has been a bit better in the passing game, but they are so abysmal in the running game that any advantage gained there is negated.
As for the offensive lines, it's advantage...push. It's quite likely that whichever group pushes the opponent around enough to establish a running game will be rewarded with a win on August 31st.