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Tennessee offensive line making big strides amid adversity

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) After overcoming multiple injuries to create more running room and allow fewer sacks this season, Tennessee’s offensive line is gearing up for one of its toughest tests.

Tennessee takes the Southeastern Conference’s second-leading rushing attack into Missouri, which ranks fifth among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring defense and eighth in total defense.

”We’re facing, I believe, the stiffest challenge we’ve faced all year in terms of just the completeness of a defense,” said Tennessee coach Butch Jones, whose team already has played No. 3 Alabama (No. 2 College Football Playoff), No. 7 Oklahoma (No. 7 CFP) and No. 8 Florida (No. 8 CFP). ”I think they’re a complete defense. When you look at their stats, some defenses are tops in this category, tops in that category. They’re basically tops in every defensive category that is out there.”

Missouri (5-5, 1-5 SEC) recorded six sacks and allowed just 1.8 yards per rush in a 29-21 victory over Tennessee last year. The Volunteers (6-4, 3-3) head into Saturday’s game believing they’re more prepared to deal with Missouri’s dynamic defense this season.

”We’re not so inexperienced as we were last year,” left tackle Kyler Kerbyson said. ”I think it will be different that way. It won’t just be their front four running around, running all over us. I’m hoping that our experience and our know-how will really help us.”

The improvement of Tennessee’s offensive line is evident from the Volunteers’ production. Tennessee is averaging 4.6 yards per carry, up from 3.6 last season. The Vols are allowing 2.1 sacks per game, down from 3.5 a year ago.

They’ve made those strides while mixing and matching various combinations on the line.

Tennessee lost its most experienced lineman when senior guard Marcus Jackson injured his biceps in training camp, knocking him out for the entire season. Brett Kendrick, the season-opening starter at right tackle, has missed Tennessee’s last five games with elbow and knee injuries. Jashon Robertson, the season-opening starter at left guard, has sat out three of the last four games with an ankle injury.

Jones said Wednesday he expects both Kendrick and Robertson to be available this week.

Offensive line coach Don Mahoney says he’s never experienced so many injuries in one year. Even so, Tennessee has rushed for 2,103 yards and already has exceeded last season’s 13-game total of 1,903.

”That’s a testament to their resolve, to their resiliency,” Jones said. ”It’s part of the way we practice. I think it’s a tribute to our players having the mental capacity to be able to play a number of positions.”

Indeed, Kerbyson is the only offensive lineman who has started every game at the same position. Mack Crowder has started one game at center and two at left guard. Dylan Wiesman has made nine starts at right guard and one at left guard. Coleman Thomas has made eight starts at center and one at right tackle.

Tennessee also has received major contributions from freshmen Chance Hall and Jack Jones. Hall has been Tennessee’s starting right tackle the last four games.

Kerbyson acknowledges that all the changes have made it tougher ”to just get in sync,” but they’ve found a way to make it work.

”That’s definitely what you want as an offensive line, to just be with the same guy all the time and understand how he plays, but we hold each other to such a high standard, it’s not much of a drop-off,” Kerbyson said.

Jones credits Kerbyson for leading the line through all this adversity. Jones calls the fifth-year senior ”as good of an ambassador as we have in our football program.”

”The best thing I can say about Kyler Kerbyson is he’s a rock of stability,” Jones said. ”He’s been very, very consistent each and every day, from his approach to practice to his approach on game day.”

AP college website: collegefootball.ap.org

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