Tennessee Football: Predicting the Depth Chart Heading into Fall Camp

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2014

Tennessee Football: Predicting the Depth Chart Heading into Fall Camp

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    Tennessee coach Butch Jones now has a lot of talented pieces. Can he put them all together to form a winning football team?
    Tennessee coach Butch Jones now has a lot of talented pieces. Can he put them all together to form a winning football team?USA TODAY Sports

    The 2014 Tennessee Volunteers have so many question marks, even their head coach won't know what to think until he sees them on the practice field.

    Sure, Butch Jones probably has an idea what to expect. But there are battles at the vast majority of positions, and reliance on players with zero experience is a brutal reality for the second-year coach.

    "It's a team of unknowns," Jones told local reporters at last week's SEC media days, according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required). "Just a little less than half of our football team will be new this year. ... So it's gonna be, 'How fast can we jump that learning curve?'"

    Depth charts this time of year for teams like Tennessee who will be relying on youngsters are ever-changing. A defensive end today may be a linebacker tomorrow. A freshman may line up at cornerback one day and be a safety the next.

    Fall camp is going to be crucial for Jones to pelt the newcomers with as much as they can handle right away and see who responds. Whoever can grasp it will be relied upon once the season starts.

    Also, who plays what position also will depend heavily on what UT is doing situationally to match up with the opponent.

    "Nick Saban may act like he's the only coach who hates depth charts, but, trust me, all of them do," Rucker told Bleacher Report. "The simple fact is depth charts are very complicated these days."

    Let's try to wade through the murky waters and offer an educated guess on who should emerge throughout fall drills for the Vols as a two-deep depth chart becomes clearer.

Quarterbacks

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    Tennessee senior Justin Worley appears to be the favorite to win UT's quarterback battle.
    Tennessee senior Justin Worley appears to be the favorite to win UT's quarterback battle.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Projected Depth Chart

    Justin Worley, 6'4", 224 pounds, senior; Joshua Dobbs, 6'3", 203 pounds, sophomore; Nathan Peterman, 6'2", 225 pounds, redshirt sophomore

     

    What to Watch For

    Worley is the senior who has the most starting experience, and he also probably holds the best grasp on the offense of any of the three candidates.

    Though Butch Jones reiterated at SEC media days last week there remains no timetable for a decision on who will be the Vols' starting quarterback, Worley should get the nod because he can be a steady (though not spectacular) leader for all the newcomers.

    It's essential for whomever wins the job to make minimal mistakes. The Vols are not going to have much margin for error, and they can't afford turnovers. Worley did the best job of that last season, tossing 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his eight games.

    After flashing better command and timing during the spring game, Worley excelled during the prestigious Manning Passing Academy. NFL draft analyst Michael Detillier lauded Worley for his accuracy and picked him as the league's most improved offensive player.

    The ace up Dobbs' sleeve is UT's young offensive line may struggle so much that it would benefit the Vols to have a more mobile quarterback under center.

    If that's the case, or if Dobbs builds off his brilliant spring game (6-9, 199 YDS, 4 total TDs), it will be a very interesting race to see who starts against Utah State.

Running Backs

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    Jalen Hurd has done everything well enough to be UT's starting running back, but senior Marlin Lane has been equally impressive.
    Jalen Hurd has done everything well enough to be UT's starting running back, but senior Marlin Lane has been equally impressive.Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Projected Depth Chart

    (1a) Marlin Lane, 5'11", 210 pounds, senior; (1b) Jalen Hurd, 6'3", 221 pounds, freshman; Derrell Scott, 5'11", 188 pounds, freshman

     

    What to Watch For

    Dynamic freshman Jalen Hurd burst onto the scene this spring as a future star who will be an immediate force in UT's running game.

    Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespienot a coach who is known for dishing out much praisetold Knoxville's Sports Animal radio station "the sky's the limit" for his former 5-star freshman.

    Despite doing everything imaginable to win that starting job, Hurd likely will begin the season behind senior Marlin Lane. The Daytona Beach, Florida, product also has won acclaim from his coaches after a rocky career that saw him suspended for much of last year's offseason.

    Lane enters his final year at UT with more rushing yards (1,536) in his first three seasons than any Rocky Top runner since Arian Foster. If he's healthy, he's the kind of tough runner who has the vision and power to get the tough yards between the tackles.

    Hurd is the game-breaker. He'll carve a huge role for himself right away, and as the season progresses, it'll be harder and harder to keep him off the field. But Lane is dependable and will be a steady force as Hurd gets accustomed to SEC battles.

    Look for fellow freshman Derrell Scott to make a name for himself as a third-down back right away as he battles with diminutive senior Devrin Young for a niche on the offense.

Wide Receivers

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    Sophomore Marquez North could have a special season with all the talent surrounding him.
    Sophomore Marquez North could have a special season with all the talent surrounding him.USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Depth Chart

    No. 1: Marquez North, 6'4", 221 pounds sophomore; Josh Smith, 6'1", 197 pounds, sophomore

    No. 2: Josh Malone, 6'3", 202 pounds, freshman; Jason Croom, 6'5", 234 pounds, redshirt sophomore

    Slot: Von Pearson, 6'3", 181 pounds, junior; Alton "Pig" Howard, 5'8", 186 pounds, junior

     

    What to Watch For

    So. Much. Talent.

    If the quarterbacks have time to throw and can actually accurately get the ball to their playmakers, UT will improve dramatically on offense.

    There are simply too many weapons not to put up a bunch of yards.

    North is the bell cow, and he is poised to make a huge leap in year two after leading the Vols with 496 receiving yards as a freshman last year. Normally sure-handed Smith will try to put a drop-laden freshman season behind him, and he has the ability to play a key role.

    Opposite North, the battle between elite freshman Malone and Croom, a player who just began to realize his immense potential toward the end of last season, will be fun. Both will play a lot, but it's going to be interesting to see who takes the first snap.

    Pearson stepped into the slot and impressed right away during spring practice. With Howard back on the team after a bizarre hiatus (per Jones at SEC media days), there will be plenty of competition there, too.

    Pig led the team with 44 catches in 2013, and he was a go-to guy with games on the line.

    Beyond these six, players like senior Jacob Carter, junior Johnathon Johnson and the freshman duo of Ryan Jenkins and Vic Wharton also could get reps. It's going to be a competition everyday in receivers coach Zach Azzanni's part of the practice field.

    That's only going to make UT better and better.

Tight Ends

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    True freshman Ethan Wolf looks like he can come in and start right away in Knoxville.
    True freshman Ethan Wolf looks like he can come in and start right away in Knoxville.Credit: 247Sports

    Projected Depth Chart

    Ethan Wolf, 6'5", 243 pounds, freshman; Daniel Helm, 6'4", 232 pounds, freshman; Brendan Downs, 6'5", 228 pounds, senior

     

    What to Watch For

    As Downs and A.J. Branisel recovered from knee injuries this past spring, Tennessee's duo of midterm standout freshmen stepped onto the practice field and impressed everybody around them.

    According to Randy Moore of InsideTennessee.com, tight ends coach Mark Elder said of Wolf: "Ethan is really a complete tight end. He's got the ability to be physical, block at the point of attack and handle a defensive end one-on-one. And we think he's a threat in the pass game."

    Helm "made some plays in the passing game, and he'll fight you as far as blocking," Elder noted in the story.

    It's going to be difficult for Downswho struggled through an injury-hampered junior seasonto overtake either, especially if he isn't 100 percent.

    Branisel caught three passes for 28 yards and a touchdown last season before tearing his ACL, and former walk-on Alex Ellis could play his way into some snaps as well.

    But Wolf and Helm are extremely talented and should be given every opportunity to top the depth chart at a position that is vitally important to the success of Butch Jones' offense and one that struggled so much a season ago.

    Downs has the size and experience to be a factor, but he'll have to stand out to get by. The talent pool is too deep now.

Offensive Line

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    Vols junior center Mack Crowder has the opportunity to be an anchor for a young, inexperienced offensive line.
    Vols junior center Mack Crowder has the opportunity to be an anchor for a young, inexperienced offensive line.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Projected Depth Chart

    Left tackle: Dontavius Blair, 6'8", 313 pounds, junior; Jacob Gilliam, 6'4", 296 pounds, redshirt senior

    Left guard: Marcus Jackson, 6'2", 304 pounds, junior; Dylan Wiesman, 6'3", 304 pounds, sophomore

    Center: Mack Crowder, 6'2", 286 pounds, junior; Wiesman, 6'3", 304 pounds, sophomore

    Right guard: Kyler Kerbyson, 6'4", 304 pounds, junior; Wiesman, 6'3", 304 pounds, sophomore

    Right tackle: Coleman Thomas, 6'6", 311 pounds, freshman; Brett Kendrick, 6'6", 315 pounds, redshirt freshman

     

    What to Watch For

    This brand new group has to develop consistency and continuity, and it also has to build off a spring that showed promise but didn't answer all the questions, according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required).

    Four of the five spots are pretty solid, as it would be a surprise if Jackson, Crowder, Kerbyson or Thomas relinquished their starting roles.

    As for the all-important left tackle spot, fifth-year senior and former walk-on Gilliam spent most of spring drills ahead of Blair, but it's going to be difficult for him to keep that role if Blair has improved over the offseason.

    "I see a majority of JUCO playerseven the most talented onescome in a little out of shape," Rucker told B/R. "They just don't have the same access to strength and conditioning and dietary needs as four-year players. 

    "I think the good news is Blair was maybe just out of shape in January and not as challenged from a physical and mental standpoint as [coaches] worried. Now, he's looking leaner and meaner and tougher. He's just got to prove it in camp."

    The Vols need for a player as physically imposing as Blair to take over at left tackle. If he can play up to his massive potential, the line will be better for it.

    UT also has some size issues inside, but that's just the physical makeup of Crowder, Kerbyson and Jackson, who aren't the hulking interior linemen the Vols are used to employing.

    They'll have to play over their heads a bit against oversized defensive lines.

    Wiesman is basically a sixth starter who can be plugged in at any of the three interior spots. Though the Vols want to see the freshman trio of Austin Sanders, Brett Kendrick and Ray Raulerson emerge for depth purposes, none have yet. Marques Pair could play a role inside, too, if needed.

Defensive Line

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    Senior Jordan Williams had a strong offseason, and now he needs to end his Vols career on a strong note.
    Senior Jordan Williams had a strong offseason, and now he needs to end his Vols career on a strong note.USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Depth Chart

    Defensive end: Curt Maggitt, 6'3", 244 pounds, redshirt junior; Corey Vereen, 6'2", 248 pounds, sophomore; Jakob Johnson, 6'4", 230 pounds, freshman

    Defensive tackle: Trevarris Saulsberry, 6'4", 297 pounds, redshirt junior; Danny O'Brien, 6'2", 281 pounds redshirt sophomore; Michael Sawyers, 6'3", 299 pounds, freshman

    Defensive tackle: Owen Williams, 6'2", 289 pounds, junior; Dimarya Mixon, 6'3", 266 pounds, freshman; Derek Barnett, 6'3", 267 pounds, freshman

    Defensive end: Jordan Williams, 6'5", 272 pounds, senior; Dewayne Hendrix, 6'4", 273 pounds, freshman; Kendal Vickers, 6'3", 254 pounds, redshirt freshman

     

    What to Watch For

    With freshmen scattered throughout UT's roster full of defensive linemen, it's almost impossible to figure out where everybody fits until they get on the field.

    Many players such as Maggitt, Jordan Williams, Mixon, Barnett and Hendrix can play multiple positions. Depending on matchups, many of them will.

    There will be situations where defensive coordinator John Jancek likely will employ "rabbit packages" where he has both his speed-rush specialists (Maggitt and Vereen) on the field at the same time. Jordan Williams can play strong-side defensive end, and he also can shift inside to play tackle.

    Versatile freshmen Hendrix and Barnetthighly coveted former 4-star prospects on the 247Sports Composite—currently weigh more than 265 pounds. So does Mixon, who ended spring practice playing inside.

    So their careers could be ticketed for tackle if not strong-side defensive end.

    Then there's Maggitt, perhaps UT's most talented defender who will play with his hand down sometimes but is athletic enough to stand up and play his old position of outside linebacker if necessary. Jakob Johnson could carve a role there, too.

    Other talented players like Vickers, LaTroy Lewis, Jaylen Miller and Joe Henderson may emerge with a big fall.

    After a particularly worrisome spring, playing time is available everywhere. Plugging the new guys where they fit best will be one of the fall's biggest storylines.

    "If they don't understand the message, they're not listening," Jones said after UT's spring game when asked about whether the incoming freshmen defensive linemen knew about the opportunity to play right away.

    "They hear it all the time, not only from me but our players. They've come around to a lot of practices, and most of them were at the spring game today. I know they understand, and I know they're looking forward to it."

    Now, it's time to see how many of them can provide immediate help at arguably the team's biggest position of need.

Linebackers

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    Senior linebacker A.J. Johnson shunned the NFL to return to Knoxville, where he's poised to have a huge final season on Rocky Top.
    Senior linebacker A.J. Johnson shunned the NFL to return to Knoxville, where he's poised to have a huge final season on Rocky Top.Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Projected Depth Chart

    Outside linebacker: Jalen Reeves-Maybin, 6'1", 214 pounds, sophomore; Colton Jumper, 6'2", 218 pounds, freshman; Justin King, 6'2", 246 pounds, redshirt sophomore

    Middle linebacker: A.J. Johnson, 6'2", 242 pounds, senior; Kenny Bynum, 6'1", 234 pounds, redshirt sophomore; Gavin Bryant, 6', 225 pounds, freshman

    Outside linebacker: Dillon Bates, 6'3", 216 pounds, freshman; Chris Weatherd, 6'4", 225 pounds, junior; Neiko Creamer, 6'3", 225 pounds, freshman

     

    What to Watch For

    To be fair, this depth chart doesn't include Curt Maggitt, who almost certainly will line up some at linebacker. But since he's listed on the official roster as a defensive lineman, he'll stay there for this exercise.

    The power of this unit is enhanced dramatically by Johnson's return for his senior season. He'll be an All-SEC performer, and if he makes strides in coverage and speed/agility, he'll be a high-round draft selection.

    Despite some lateral limitations, Johnson is a college star who'll make a major impact.

    As for the outside 'backers, the Vols are much more athletic than they were a season ago when Brent Brewer and Dontavis Sapp started, but that doesn't mean they'll be better.

    JRM and Bates are both extremely light, and it'll be interesting to see how big (or not) they stay throughout the rigors of an SEC season.

    If the Vols get into fall drills and find out they aren't going to be overly strong on the second level, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Maggitt could play there more.

    But as GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) notes, Bates has impressed coaches with his football IQ. If he can play physical football to go along with his understanding of the game, it'll be tough to keep him off the field.

    UT also got some great news on Tuesday as Weatherd was cleared to join the Vols, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Patrick Brown. He immediately provides an athletic presence who could figure immediately into the equations in pass-rushing situations.

    The Vols are still nowhere near as deep at the position as they'd like to be, but there is enough mixture of athletes and size where they can have a viable rotation, unlike a season ago.

Defensive Backs

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    After a superlative freshman season, cornerback Cameron Sutton is going to be relied upon to lead.
    After a superlative freshman season, cornerback Cameron Sutton is going to be relied upon to lead.Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Projected Depth Chart

    Cornerback: Cameron Sutton, 6'1", 180 pounds, sophomore; Rashaan Gaulden, 6'1", 165 pounds, freshman; Michael Williams, 5'11", 186 pounds, redshirt sophomore

    Cornerback: Emmanuel Moseley, 5'11", 165 pounds, freshman; Evan Berry, 5'11", 195 pounds, freshman; Malik Foreman, 5'10", 181 pounds, sophomore

    Safety: Brian Randolph, 6', 197 pounds, redshirt junior; Devaun Swafford, 5'11", 193 pounds, sophomore; Cortez McDowell, 6'1", 204 pounds, freshman

    Safety: Todd Kelly Jr., 6', 191 pounds, freshman; LaDarrell McNeil, 6'1", 204 pounds, junior; Lemond Johnson, 6'1", 196 pounds, sophomore

    Nickelback: Justin Coleman, 5'10", 190 pounds, senior; D'Andre Payne, 5'9", 184 pounds, freshman; Elliott Berry, 6', 207 pounds, freshman

     

    What to Watch For

    Much like the defensive line situation, there are far too many new faces to say with any certainty where everybody is going to play.

    A couple of definitives: Randolph is a defensive stalwart who'll start at one of the safety spots, and Sutton will follow up his sterling freshman season as a cornerstone at cornerback.

    Other than that, it's anybody's guess.

    Moseley, though slim and raw, certainly looked the part this past spring, according to USA Today's Paul Myerberg. He looks primed to have a big future on the Hill, and he enters fall camp as the favorite to hold off the newcomers at the other corner spot.

    While the Berry twins, Gaulden, Kelly and McDowell elevated the level of play the moment they stepped onto campus, they'll have to battle for playing time just like everybody else.

    McDowell and Kelly will vie for the other safety spot against incumbent McNeil, who has to improve dramatically if he's to keep his starting job. The guess here is that Kelly's mixture of size and athleticism will earn him an early nod over McNeil.

    In nickel situations, the Vols seem to have finally found a home for Coleman, who was abused on the perimeter throughout his first three seasons. If he solidifies that spot, Payne and Berry can improve and be brought along slowly to take over that spot next year.

    It will be interesting to see what position versatile players like the Berry twins and Gaulden wind up playing. Their skill sets must be utilized, even if just on special teams, because the Vols will need them to play key roles soon.

Specialists

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    Senior punter Matt Darr hopes to have the same kind of career resurgence this year as Michael Palardy had last season.
    Senior punter Matt Darr hopes to have the same kind of career resurgence this year as Michael Palardy had last season.USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Depth Chart

    Placekicker: Aaron Medley, 6'2", 175 pounds, freshman; George Bullock, 6', 209 pounds, redshirt sophomore; Derrick Brodus, 5'11", 193 pounds, redshirt senior

    Punter: Matt Darr, 6'1", 219 pounds, redshirt senior; Medley, 6'2", 175 pounds, freshman

     

    What to Watch For

    The Vols are dangerously shaky at the specialist positions heading into the season. You don't just replace the production of departed senior Michael Palardy without getting a little lucky.

    A major answer to those questions could be found in Medley, the nation's sixth-ranked kicker, according to the 247Sports Composite.

    If the Marshall County High School prospect from Lewisburg, Tennessee, can step right in and be a consistent kicker, the Vols will breathe a sigh of relief.

    With his powerful leg, Medley almost certainly will be the man on kickoffs right away.

    He'll battle Bullock and Brodus for the rights to kick extra points and field goals, and Brodus is the only one of the trio with collegiate kicking experience. He has made seven of eight field goals and 15 of 17 extra points in his career.

    As for Darr, his college days have been inconsistent after a high school career that concluded with his participation in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. He has averaged just 38.4 yards per punt and struggled mightily in directional kicking.

    After Palardy beat him last season, Darr didn't punt a single time. Unless Medley can beat him out, Darr is the man this year. The Vols need him to have a similar career resurgence as Palardy did a season ago.

     

    All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports Composite. All statistics gathered from UTSports.com; and roster information taken from UTSports as well. Observations from the spring were gathered firsthand, unless otherwise noted. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

    Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:

    @Brad_Shepard