Tennessee Football: Spring Practice Position Battle Tracker
All over the football field, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is looking for Volunteers to step up and seize control of various up-for-grabs positions.
There hasn't been a spring in recent memory where so many jobs were experiencing wide-open battles.
With UT coming off four consecutive losing seasons, replacing numerous seniors and welcoming 14 newcomers into a program desperately needing a new jolt of excitement, change is welcome—refreshing, even.
Everybody around the college football world knows about the Vols' four-man quarterback battle. But there is way more uncertainty than that in Knoxville.
Even though some of the position battles such as strong safety won't truly heat up until injuries heal and all 31 of Tennessee's commitments get to campus, there is plenty of competition brewing elsewhere this spring.
Let's take a look at the most hotly contested wars being waged for starting spots.
Despite all the publicity surrounding Tennessee's quarterback free-for-all this spring, there hasn't been a lot of earth-shattering news.
None of the quartet of senior Justin Worley, sophomores Nathan Peterman and Joshua Dobbs or redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson has seized control of the starting job yet. There haven't even been any reports of any one (or two) pulling ahead.
UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told VolQuest.com's Grant Ramey (subscription required) this week:
They just need to manage the offense. I don't think there's a ton of difference in their skill set. It's not like one is a phenomenal passer or one's a phenomenal athlete. They're all good passers and they're all good athletes. They just have to do what we're asking them to do: take care of the football, keep the offense in manageable down and distance and manage the offense.
Despite Bajakian's comments, many around the program are enamored with Ferguson's skills. GoVols247's Wes Rucker told me "Ferguson's arm is absolutely star-caliber in terms of how he spins it."
Also, Worley's grasp of the offense probably gives him an edge, too. Dobbs earned valuable playing time late in 2013, and he has been a steady force through spring.
Those three are firmly in front of Peterman, according to Rucker, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Vols whittle the race to start by spring's end.
Rising senior running back Marlin Lane has recommitted himself to football, exactly the kind of leadership Tennessee needs heading into the 2014 season.
He may need every bit of that renewed dedication to keep his starting spot.
While others went home for the holidays, Lane told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) he stayed in Knoxville to work out and get better. He was enjoying a breakout spring when he broke a bone in his hand that will limit him the rest of the way.
In-state star freshman running back Jalen Hurd may only need that small crack to break through.
Hurd has been incredible so far this spring, learning the nuances to be a complete running back while making the type of breakout plays the Vols hoped he would when they signed him.
UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told Volquest's John Brice (subscription required) recently:
I like what I've seen. He's a complete running back. He can run between the tackles, he can get outside, he can use his size. He has a loose athleticism to make a guy miss in space, he has good hands, he learns fast. I'm very excited about him and what he brings to the table for this offense in the future.
Hurd was electrifying during the team's first scrimmage more than a week ago, and all eyes will be on the Hendersonville native at the Orange and White Game on April 12.
Wide Receiver (No. 3)
Nobody is overtaking Marquez North's starting spot on the outside, and with Pig Howard currently out of the picture, it looks like junior college transfer Von Pearson has locked down the starting slot.
That leaves the other outside receiver spot opposite North as the only real race for a starting pass-catching spot.
So far, big-bodied redshirt sophomore Jason Croom has held off vaunted freshman midterm enrollee Josh Malone, but things are slowing down for the silky-smooth first-year player after spring break, according to The Chattanoogan's Larry Fleming.
At 6'5", 234 pounds, Croom certainly looks the part of a star receiver, and he was beginning to come alive toward the end of the '13 season. But Malone is the complete package, and even sophomore Josh Smith has shown flashes of being a good college receiver.
All three of those guys will be firmly in the receiver rotation come fall, but the Vols need one of them to seize the spot and help take plenty of pressure off North and Pearson.
One position where UT needs a serious talent upgrade is tight end.
With senior Brendan Downs and sophomore A.J. Branisel out this spring with injuries, the battle for repetitions is wide open. Coaches don't just want the inexperienced players on the field this spring to provide depth, either.
They want them to win the job outright.
The two most talented tight ends on the roster are midterm freshman enrollees Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf. Wolf got out to a quick start, flashing his athleticism and blocking skills, but Helm has seized starting reps since then according to Nooga.com's Daniel Lewis.
Helm has a big body and was one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the recruiting cycle, while Wolf is more of a hand-down tight end who can block or run short patterns. They're battling walk-on Alex Ellis for snaps right now.
Ellis is a redshirt junior from Delaware who shouldn't be discounted because he isn't on scholarship. Injuries have kept him off the field, but he was expected to contribute last season.
Once Downs and Branisel get healthy, Butch Jones needs to develop a nice rotation of two or three tight ends he can count on.
Last season, former Knoxville Catholic standout Kyler Kerbyson was Tennessee's Swiss army knife lineman, a do-it-all player who could fill in anywhere.
This spring, the redshirt junior has proven he can hang on to a starting spot, at least so far.
Kerbyson has been solid at right guard and has maintained a hold on the starting spot.
While Dylan Wiesman will be a versatile lineman who can play any of the three inside spots, the sophomore from Ohio hasn't been able to crack the starting lineup because of Kerbyson's consistency.
Though Kerbyson hasn't outright won the battle yet, his comfortable lead over Wiesman has allowed the latter to get some work backing up Mack Crowder at center.
"Wiesman is someone Tennessee's coaches have loved since he was in high school," GoVols247's Wes Rucker told me, "and his versatility is part of the reason for that."
Both of those guys should play a lot in the interior of UT's line, and it has made for a healthy battle between two key cogs on the Vols line this spring. No matter who wins the job, Tennessee will depend on both.
There may not be a more important newcomer to Tennessee's immediate success than junior college transfer left tackle Dontavius Blair.
But, as of Saturday's scrimmage, the massive former Garden City Community College player had still not cemented himself as a definite starter. As a matter of fact, Knoxville native and fifth-year senior walk-on Jacob Gilliam was receiving snaps with the first team and playing well.
Gilliam being a legit threat to Blair is more of a success story on Gilliam's part than Blair's failure, but the bottom line is Blair is struggling to live up to his 4-star status, per 247Sports, at this early stage.
The Vols signed him to start—now.
Coach Butch Jones told Ryan Callahan (subscription required) on Saturday:
I don't know if you say (Blair is coming along) slower. There's a lot going at him when you're playing the left tackle position, so the speed of the game, understanding the plays, snap counts, defensive fronts, body language of the defense. I think he's just going through the maturation phase of learning what it takes, and then being in shape to play every down in an uptempo offense. I think he's just going through a growth and maturation process right now.
It's excellent news for UT that Gilliam is coming along enough to provide depth. But the Vols need Blair's talent to shine through soon.
There hasn't been a more concerning position for the Vols than the interior of the defensive line.
Though there are major reinforcements coming this summer, the group has been handled by UT's revamped offensive line all spring. Both starting spots are coming down to outright wars in the trenches, and not all the participants are around to be taking live bullets.
Trevarris Saulsberry is injured for the spring and figures to weigh heavily on the race when fall practice opens. Jason Carr also has been limited with injuries, leaving junior college transfer Owen Williams to emerge as UT's most consistent tackle the past couple of weeks.
Danny O'Brien showed flashes as a redshirt freshman last year, but he hasn't seized a golden opportunity yet this spring. The Vols are attempting to get quicker inside, so O'Brien has lost some snaps to athletic freshman Dimarya Mixon.
Also, senior end Jordan Williams has been getting reps inside, too, as UT looks to get its best players on the field.
Those tackle battles will continue well into the fall and perhaps even through the season.
Tennessee's two worst positions on the football field during a poor 2013 season were tight end on offense and nickelback on defense.
The Vols gave up big play after big play while attempting to insert anybody with a pulse at the nickel last year.
Defensive coordinator John Jancek has tried to rectify that this spring, working out numerous players to build depth and give extended looks at a position that requires the ability to cover but also blitz and tackle effectively.
While Tennessee has worked out sophomores Malik Foreman and Devaun Swafford, senior JaRon Toney and true freshman D'Andre Payne there so far, the player UT wants to settle there for good is senior Justin Coleman.
According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown, UT defensive coordinator John Jancek called nickel Coleman's new "home."
It's home for him right now, and then we're moving him around. We're going to make sure that we can plug him in at a variety of spots. Obviously corner, he's completely comfortable with having played it for a full year for us, so the nickel spot is home right now, but we're going to continue to move him around.
Coleman has been burned repeatedly throughout his career as a starting corner outside, and the closer to the middle of the field and off an island .
Star prospects like RaShaan Gaulden and the Berry twins could factor in once they arrive on campus.
Cornerback (No. 2)
Nobody anticipated that a 2-star unknown prospect Tennessee stole from Charlotte would have such an immediate impact.
Yet, that's exactly what Emmanuel Moseley has done, flashing speed and better-than-expected technique in taking starting reps from sophomore Malik Foreman opposite Cameron Sutton.
Both Moseley—who was ultimately awarded 3 stars by 247Sports—and Foreman will play this fall, but even though he still needs to add weight to his wiry frame, Moseley has been one of the major surprises of spring camp.
He takes his share of lumps going against Marquez North and company, but the Greensboro, N.C., freshman holds his own, too.
This position battle is nowhere near over, and Foreman is fully capable of winning the job. Guys like senior Riyahd Jones and sophomore Michael Williams can earn reps as well.
When Evan Berry and RaShaan Gaulden arrive on campus, they also will throw their hats in the ring.
The Vols have some talent at corner, but it's all inexperienced. Moseley has taken advantage of the opportunity, and that will be a nice little healthy battle for months to come.
Most Tennessee fans concerned about the kicking game had all but handed the starting place-kicking duties to true freshman Aaron Medley, who won't arrive on campus until this summer.
That was, until redshirt sophomore George Bullock went out and had one of the most consistent scrimmages a UT kicker not named Michael Palardy had in years on Saturday.
Though it is just one scrimmage, Bullock made field goals of 29, 34 and 46 yards in soggy conditions at Neyland Stadium, according to VolQuest.com's John Brice and Brent Hubbs (subscription required).
An outing like that should do nothing but boost Bullock's confidence.
He always has had a big leg and is the favorite to handle kickoff duties, but now it looks like he could be a viable force in the battle to kick field goals with Medley and Derrick Brodus involved as well.
Replicating the production of Ray Guy Award semifinalist Palardy will be nearly impossible, but UT has some impressive legs in the mix.
It will be interesting to see who emerges and if Michael Darr can solidify the punting duties also vacated by Palardy.
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