The Tennessee football team hopes to return to prominence sooner rather than later under new head coach Jeremy Pruitt and his staff.

As important as coaching staffs are to a football program, though, players ultimately have to make plays on the field — or get exposed in the process.

It’s often said that a player’s biggest improvement comes between his first and second year on campus. One full year’s worth of experience on campus, whether a player redshirts or contributes, tends to make most players much more comfortable with their surroundings and much more ready to help their team.

With those previous few paragraphs in mind, GoVols247‘s eighth annual Second-Year Surge series will examine Tennessee’s group of second-year scholarship players, dissecting reasons for optimism and hesitation about each player’s immediate and long-term future in the Pruitt era.

The Vols need significant improvement from players in their 2017 signing class if they hope to start climbing back toward their traditional place near the top of the Southeastern Conference.
Will that happen, though?

Let’s start that conversation now.

Second-Year Surge continues with a look at sophomore offensive lineman Riley Locklear.

RILEY LOCKLEAR

Position: Offensive line
Size: 6-foot-5, 295 pounds
Hometown/Previous school: Huntington, W.V./Spring Valley High School
Recruiting ranking: No. 606 overall prospect in the nation according to the industry-generated 247Sports Composite, No. 1,418 overall prospect in the nation according to 247Sports. No. 62 offensive tackle prospect in the nation according to the 247Sports Composite, No. 128 offensive tackle prospect in the nation according to 247Sports. No. 3 overall prospect in West Virginia according to the 247Sports Composite, No. 7 overall prospect in West Virginia according to 247Sports.
2017 stats: 4 games, 2 starts.

STRENGTHS SHOWN: Many offensive linemen claim they could get the ball and do something with it if given the opportunity, but Locklear wouldn’t be stretching the truth if he made that claim. Locklear actually played running back his entire freshman season at the high school level, but he continued getting taller and stronger in the offseason and eventually continued the family tradition of playing up front — his brother Alex Locklear plays offensive line at Marshall. The younger Locklear doesn’t have the same size as his 345-pound older brother, but he’s continued putting on good weight since arriving at Tennessee, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s topped the 300-pound mark by this point. Injuries forced Locklear to ditch his redshirt season late in the year, and he played in the team’s final four games, drawing two starts. To Locklear’s credit, he looked pretty solid, and he certainly kept his focus and kept himself ready to play when it looked for all the world like he would redshirt. It’s a small sample size, and it’s not something to brag about considering how awful Tennessee’s offensive line (sans Trey Smith) was last season, but Locklear finished with the second-highest average grade up front for the Vols, according to 247Sports partner Pro Football Focus. Locklear, a quiet bass angler in his spare time, plays with the kind of nasty streak you’d expect from a West Virginia country boy, and there’s a lot to like about his potential moving forward.

STEP-UP NEEDED: Locklear started at guard in Tennessee’s annual Orange & White Game at Neyland Stadium, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything about his depth-chart position heading into the 2018 season. The Vols weren’t full strength for that scrimmage. They didn’t have Smith on the field that day, and Smith’s possible return would change the depth chart in a hurry, whether he’d return at guard or tackle. Alabama graduate transfer Brandon Kennedy also is a strong contender to win a first-team spot now that he’s at Tennessee, and there will be plenty of time before and perhaps even during the season to see things change there. If Kennedy wins the first-team center positions and Smith returns and plays tackle, you might be looking at a situation where Locklear, fellow sophomore Ryan Johnson and freshman Jerome Carvin are competing for the two first-team guard spots. There are many potential combinations up front for the Vols, and the competition in that group will be fun to follow in the coming weeks and months.

SYNOPSIS (TL;DR): It’s not a stretch to suggest Locklear will be a part of Tennessee’s rotation at guard and/or center this season, but whether he earns a first-team spot or comes of the bench remains to be seen. Either way, though, it’s tough to foresee a situation where a healthy Locklear isn’t one of Tennessee’s top seven or eight offensive lineman.