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Tennessee Football: Position-by-Position Spring Practice Preview

Brad ShepardFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 1, 2017

Tennessee Football: Position-by-Position Spring Practice Preview

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    Fifteen pivotal practices are staring the Tennessee Volunteers in the face this spring, a handful of days that will go far in determining the length of strides the program takes in 2014.

    While not everybody who will play a role on this year's team will be present, the Vols do have the luxury of already having 14 of their 31 signees on campus and ready to participate. That means head coach Butch Jones can teach, mold, push and examine many of the weapons he'll have at his disposal.

    The growing pains can be weathered now, and by fall, perhaps a few of them will be counted on.

    For positions like quarterback, offensive line and wide receiver, where most of the movers and shakers are already going through drills, this spring is massive for establishing a pecking order.

    Other areas such as the defensive line, cornerbacks and safeties will feature players who are trying to get a firm foothold on positions before the reinforcements arrive.

    If UT truly is on the brink of a big turnaround, the seeds of that will be sown starting Friday.

    Let's take a look at the position-by-position breakdown heading into Coach Jones' second spring on the Hill.

Quarterbacks

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    Garry Jones/Associated Press

    Everybody loves quarterback battles. 

    Well, everybody except coaches. All coaches would like for there to be an established, talented leader (or two) heading into the season.

    That is exactly where the Vols will try to finish a spring that will begin with four candidates—senior Justin Worley, redshirt sophomore Nathan Peterman, true sophomore Joshua Dobbs and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson—vying to start against Utah State.

    None of those players has separated himself with his practice or his play in games. Though both Worley and Dobbs showed flashes of adequacy in extended game action in 2013, neither did enough to be a clear-cut front-runner.

    Ferguson is the only one who hasn't played, and he will enter camp with a swagger and buzz that will be nearly impossible to live up to immediately. Worley has the experience, and Dobbs has the intelligence.

    Can any of them put it all together and separate themselves from the pack?

    The best-case scenario for Butch Jones would be to have at least two players stand out, narrowing the battle throughout spring and gaining more reps as the practices wear on. Balancing reps for four guys in limited practice time is a major concern.

    By the time fall practice rolls around, it needs to be a two-man race.

    But let's be honest here: This is the SEC, and the Vols have questions all over the field. Tennessee doesn't simply need somebody to win the quarterback job; the Vols need for one of those guys to run away with it.

    Let the derby begin.

Running Backs

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    For the past three years, Marlin Lane has shown flickers of being an able every-down back in the SEC.

    One moment, he's bruising the Vols closer to the goal line to set up a field goal and epic upset of South Carolina. The next, he's disappearing for entire swaths of football games due to nagging injuries.

    Now, Lane is entering his final season with his starting spot—and potential NFL dollars—on the line.

    If he doesn't perform, there are plenty of candidates (and one very notable freshman) waiting in the wings.

    No player on the roster will be burdened with more expectations than mid-term enrollee Jalen Hurd, a towering, 6'3", 230-pound athlete who runs like a race horse and packs a punch upon arrival.

    Hurd will be full-go for spring practice, and with a talented prospect like him battling for carries, Lane had better be much better.

    The Vols have plenty of talent. Establishing a bell cow, depth chart and big-play threat are items on the agenda for the position this spring. The Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown noted recently: 

    In 2013, with an offensive line with a couple of future NFL players, the Vols managed 69 rushing attempts of 10-plus yards, the 11th-most in the SEC. Of Tennessee's 14 runs of 20-plus yards, three were from quarterback Josh Dobbs and another came from receiver Pig Howard. Since Montario Hardesty recorded the fourth-best single-season rushing yardage total (1,345) in program history to earn All-SEC honors in 2009, the Vols have lacked a true game-breaking back.

    Change-of-pace backs Justis Pickett and Devrin Young—who can play in the backfield but may move back to the slot with Pig Howard's absence—could provide home-run threats along with Hurd.

    They will be in the mix for carries along with redshirt sophomore between-the-tackles runner Alden Hill. Four-star North Carolina back Derrell Scott arrives this summer, so this is a big spring for Lane.

Wide Receivers

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    Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

    A little more than a year ago, Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni referred to the situation he inherited at "Wide Receiver U" to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Mike Strange as "a blank canvas."

    What a difference 14 months and two recruiting classes make.

    Now with replenished depth and talent (albeit largely unproven), the Vols are able to better withstand a body blow like Tuesday's news that the team's leader in receptions—Alton "Pig" Howard—will miss spring practice for "personal matters," Butch Jones told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required).

    Right now Alton is on a leave of absence from the football team. He's taking care of some personal matters. There is no timetable set for him to return. There are standards and expectations that must be met at Tennessee, but that's entirely up to him. I think lost in this is the game of life. These are 17-to 22-year-old individuals, and football's just a small part of it. That’s all I'll say right now, but he's not going through spring football, and he's taking care of some personal issues.

    Even with Pig's future very much in doubt, UT will have a slew of talented targets to bring along, starting with the group's leader, rising sophomore Marquez North.

    After getting the bulk of the attention from defenders last year, North will love having freshman Josh Malone and junior college transfer Von Pearson on the field. Both of those highly touted players are on campus and ready to roll this spring.

    Their presence should lead to a more consistent, perhaps breakout, season for North.

    Throw in stalwarts like sophomores Jason Croom and Josh Smith, junior slot receiver Johnathon Johnson and senior Jacob Carter, and UT has some potential at the position, with or without Pig's presence.

    Vic Wharton will arrive this summer, and if Ryan Jenkins ever gets his knees healthy, UT will enjoy even more depth.

Tight Ends

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    There is nowhere on the field where freshmen have a bigger opportunity to start than at tight end.

    Senior Brendan Downs is coming off an atrocious, injury-riddled season, senior Woody Quinn has not yet proven he deserves to be in the mix, senior Alex Ellis is still recovering from various injuries and sophomore A.J. Branisel hasn't gotten back from tearing his ACL.

    That means freshmen Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm—mid-term enrollees with the accolades and abilities to shine immediately—have a chance to earn serious reps this spring.

    Wolf is a 6'6" specimen who is surprisingly agile and able to put a hand on the ground and lay into a defender in blocking situations. The Ohio product may be needed early with UT breaking in a new offensive line.

    Helm is more of a pass-catching receiver hybrid who could develop into a versatile target for whoever lines up under center in Knoxville.

    They have a golden opportunity to begin their careers in Knoxville as players who can be depended on.

    Ellis is a bit of a wild card if he gets healthy, but once Downs and Branisel get back, this could be a team strength for a Tennessee team that had virtually no threat at the position a year ago.

Offensive Line

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Replacing offensive linemen is always a major concern. 

    Replacing an entire offensive line is suicide, especially in a line-of-scrimmage league like the SEC.

    Yet, that's exactly the unenviable proposition facing Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney in 2014. All five starters will be plying their trade in the NFL next year, and the Vols are left trying to piece together a front five.

    On one hand, the old guard never quite lived up to their massive expectations, so it isn't like they're irreplaceable. On the other, there are few proven commodities left on UT's roster.

    Said GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required):

    In short, Tennessee is going to have to throw some of these big kids into the pool and see which ones can swim. That doesn't mean this group can't be good, but the challenge is very real. Replacing all five starters up front is a gargantuan task, and one that will require patience from all sides involved. Do not be fooled for a second into thinking otherwise.

    The interior looks fairly firm, with center Mack Crowder and guard Marcus Jackson having started games in their college careers. Other super subs like junior Kyler Kerbyson and sophomore Dylan Wiesman have played extensively and will battle for the other guard spot.

    Freshman Ray Raulerson may be athletic enough to provide depth as well.

    The tackle situation is much more dicey for the Vols. This spring, at least two dependable starters must emerge from a group of players who've never played an SEC down.

    Junior college transfer Dontavius Blair is already on campus and the favorite to fill Tiny Richardson's sizable shows at left tackle. True freshman Coleman Thomas will battle redshirt freshmen Austin Sanders and Brett Kendrick, as well as seniors Marques Pair and former walk-on Jacob Gilliam for the right tackle spot.

    If UT can't find a serviceable rotation in that group, Kerbyson can play tackle if needed.

    It's a scary situation for Mahoney, but there are plenty of able bodies. Experience will be at a premium, but they'll have to grow up quickly for the Vols to take any big leaps forward in 2014.

    With most everybody on campus, besides two-way linemen Jashon Robertson and Charles Mosley who could factor into the OL equation, there is no more important developmental area than the line this spring.

Defensive Line

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    As if having to replace the entire offensive line wasn't cringe-worthy enough, Tennessee has to do the same on the defensive line.

    In a word, yikes.

    Gone are Daniel McCullers, Dan Hood, Mo Couch, Corey Miller, Jacques Smith and Marlon Walls.

    Once a horde of touted defensive line prospects such as Dewayne Hendrix, Derek Barnett, Michael Sawyers, Charles Mosley, Jashon Robertson and Joe Henderson arrive this summer, there will be even more excitement around position battles.

    For now, UT must find able bodies in a sack of potatoes.

    The Vols certainly have some exciting, untapped talent. If Trevarris Saulsberry (who won't be 100 percent this spring) ever gets healthy, he has proven to be dependable inside.

    Joining him is redshirt sophomore Danny O'Brien, who appears poised to break out at tackle this spring.

    Former top prospect Jason Carr is up to 6'5", 292 pounds and could take a gigantic leap this spring, which would be exciting news for coach Steve Stripling and UT. Junior college transfer Owen Williams wasn't recruited to stand on the sideline, and he has a burst inside that the Vols have been lacking.

    Outside, there is a little more dependability. GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) believes rising senior Jordan Williams is ready to bust through.

    Looking the part has never been an issue for Williams, who seems to be the kid of SEC D-end you’d order from central casting. Consistently playing as good as he looks has been the issue. In fairness, though, Williams has gotten a bit better every season and has generally played pretty well when given opportunities.

    Another end with a wealth of talent and the team's best pass-rusher is sophomore Corey Vereen, who will be a force if he can harness his unbridled energy.

    Unproven commodities like Kendal Vickers and Jaylen Miller, Dimarya Mixon and LaTroy Lewis need to begin to blossom this spring. If they do, this group could be extremely deep. 

    But that's a huge "if."

Linebackers

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Tennessee's linebacking corps was a step slow in 2013, which led to several very forgettable performancesmost notably against Missouri and Auburn.

    The Vols upgraded the position through recruiting, and though players like Dillon Bates, Gavin Bryant and Chris Weatherd won't be here until the summer, there is one "newcomer" who is expected to upgrade the talent pool considerably.

    Curt Maggitt will return from a year-plus hiatus after tearing his ACL in November 2012 against Missouri. Sixteen months removed from the injury, the Florida junior should be 100 percent.

    As a pass-rushing specialist who can line up inside, outside or on the edge, a healthy Maggitt's speed could transform UT's defense.

    He will team with All-SEC middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, who eschewed the NFL to return for his senior season on Rocky Top, to complete a formidable duo. Though Johnson won't win any coverage contests, there are few better run-stuffers in the league, and he will anchor the interior.

    That other linebacker position battle will be fun to watch. Sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin is on campus and will try to get a head start on securing the spot before the cavalry arrives this summer.

    German-born mid-term enrollee Jakob Johnson (all 6'4", 230 pounds of him) has impressed everybody in the weight room and individual/team drills so far, and it'll be interesting to see if he can carve an immediate role throughout March.

    Other intriguing stories dot the linebacker map such as athlete Neiko Creamer's move to the outside, a move reported by the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Evan Woodbery (subscription required).

    Also worth watching is the fact that it's a very important spring for rising redshirt sophomores Kenny Bynum and Justin King to see whether they can crack the depth chart.

    The Vols have some athletes at the position, but they've got to shake out a solid rotation that can perform at a high level in the SEC.

Secondary

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Cameron Sutton burst onto the scene as a true freshman in 2013 and became one of the best young cornerbacks in the SEC.

    The only problem is he and Brian Randolph had very little help in the Vols' secondary.

    This spring will announce the arrival of two newcomers in Emmanuel Moseley and D'Andre Payne, who could play their way into the rotation, but it is the shuffling of some players already present on the roster that could lead to depth.

    Malik Foreman, a rising sophomore from Kingsport, could be ready to challenge for the other starting spot. He'll battle incumbent starter Justin Coleman, former track star Michael Williams, senior Riyahd Jones and the newcomers for playing time.

    The development of some new faces could really help UT find a concoction that works. Said the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown:

    Here are two to watch for Tennessee's secondary: Foreman and (LaDarrell) McNeil. Though Sutton pulled it off without a spring practice last season, it's hard to envision Payne or Moseley swooping in and nabbing a starting spot right away.

    The Vols considered moving Coleman to the nickel spot, where they struggled mightily last season, but never made the move. The development of Foreman -- and possibly the speed of Payne and Moseley -- could afford Tennessee that option, and despite his inconsistency in practice last season, the coaches were encouraged by his progress toward the end of the season.

    At safety, the Vols will be without second-leading tackler and interception leader Randolph this spring as he recovers from a shoulder injury. It's the perfect opportunity for McNeil to put behind him a poor 2013 and emerge as a leader at the other safety spot in his absence.

    The Vols will be not only looking for depth but also quality this spring.

Specialists

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    How do you replace a Ray Guy Award semifinalist who excelled at handling all your team's kicking duties?

    That's the challenge facing Butch Jones and the Tennessee Vols with Michael Palardy out of eligibility.

    Despite an up-and-down career, Palardy was the team's 2013 MVP, making 14-of-17 field goals, handling kickoff duties and averaging 44.5 yards per punt. He had a stunning season.

    Now, UT will try to piece together a team of specialists that can put a dent in that production.

    Senior Derrick Brodus is probably the favorite to handle field goals and extra points this spring, and Knoxville native George Bullock will battle him as well as kick off.

    Former top-ranked punter Matt Darr has been wildly inconsistent during his Tennessee career, and he enters his last year as the favorite to punt. The only other punters on the roster are walk-ons.

    One of the nation's top kickersLewisburg's Aaron Medleywill arrive this summer amid desperation for him to provide an immediate impact. Medley could factor in to all the kicking races, but he isn't currently on campus and won't go through spring.

    This is a scary, dangerous situation for UT. The Vols need to find some dependable legs as soon as possible.

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