The Tennessee Volunteers are (relatively) healthy, the youngsters are as ready as they're going to get, the quarterback is settled and camp is about to give way to game week.
All in all, it's been a successful three weeks of football on Rocky Top.
Utah State looms on Aug. 31, and, in some ways, the Vols are ahead of schedule. In others, they're behind. That's just the way it's going to be with such a young group.
And, boy, are the Vols young.
Of the 32 newcomers UT brought in, all but about five or six should receive immediate playing time. Any time there's that much youth on a roster, it's difficult to gauge what you've got until the season starts.
An extra year of practice is a luxury head coach Butch Jones and his staff don't have. He told Volquest.com's John Brice and Paul Fortenberry (subscription required):
We're still work-in-progress from the maturity standpoint. Like I said, some individuals are ahead of others in terms of maturity. We knew this. This isn't any surprise to us. They're 17-year-old kids going through their first training camp. It's having that mental toughness, mental conditioning to fight through the fatigue, especially the mental fatigue. We talk about being relentless and having a relentless approach. But the mental approach is so much more important than the physical approach. … We're very, very youthful. So every day is a learning experience for them.
Every game will be, too; at least early. So, buckle up for a rocky road on Rocky Top—but it's one that holds a lot of hope, too.
Robertson's Surge Means Surprising O-Line Depth
Without question, the biggest surprise of fall camp is Jashon Robertson, and he may just wind up being the steal of a decorated recruiting class.
The 6'3", 304-pound former 3-star prospect from Nashville shifted from defensive tackle to offensive guard four days into fall camp.
By late last week, he was starting at right guard, bumping entrenched Kyler Kerbyson out to tackle and bouncing fellow freshman Coleman Thomas from the first team.
Robertson was a long-time commitment to James Franklin's Vanderbilt Commodores, but when the coach bolted for Penn State, the two-way lineman started looking.
With childhood buddy Jalen Hurd a prominent member of UT's 2014 recruiting class, Robertson visited in January of this year and wound up flipping to UT on the 15th of that month. He enrolled this summer, and it hasn't taken the former high school wrestler long to shine on the offensive line.
"Jashon," Kerbyson told UTSports.com's Brian Rice, "seems like a natural."
Offensive line is one of the most difficult positions to learn as a freshman, and the fact that Robertson did it so quickly is extremely encouraging.
It also means UT has some options along a completely rebuilt offensive line from a season ago.
The past few days, the Vols have been working a first team that consists of Jacob Gilliam at left tackle, Marcus Jackson at left guard, Mack Crowder at center, Robertson at right guard and Kerbyson at right tackle.
Robertson: Marcus Jackson has really helped me a lot. I just focus on one thing everyday. The coaches tell me I have an opportunity to help.— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) August 18, 2014
Thomas can play all the positions, and Dylan Wiesman is a super-utility interior lineman who can play guard or center. JUCO transfer Dontavius Blair is still battling Gilliam at left tackle.
The Vols aren't going to be dominant in the trenches, but they have some flexibility, at least. Jones told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) in regards to depth:
It's about what we expected. … It's having depth, and when you're limited with not much depth, we want to be able to move players around, because it’s all about putting the best five on the field. … When you don't have depth by overall numbers, you have to get it by, you know, players who can play multiple positions up front. And that's what we're attempting to do.
Thanks to the emergence of Robertson—who has apparently made it impossible for coaches to ignore him—UT now has the ability to mix and match.
That'll help fuel competition, depth and ultimately the improvement of a group that is going to be vital to this team's success.
Good News on Saulsberry Injury
The biggest concern for the Vols is finding playmakers along the defensive line, and they thought they received a major blow when Trevarris Saulsberry went down with a knee injury during Saturday night's open scrimmage.
Instead, UT got some good news for a change.
The 6'4", 296-pound redshirt junior "re-aggravated the knee" injury that kept him out of most of last season, Jones said, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required). Jones said the injury could keep Saulsberry out a couple of days to a week.
That's much better than the season-ending injury UT initially feared. Saulsberry missed most of last season and all this past spring and has been injury-prone in the past. The Vols desperately need him to return to the player he showed glimpses of being against Oregon last year and Alabama two years ago.
Butch: #Vols Jr DT Trevarris Saulsberry (knee) NOT done for the season. Maybe a few days. Maybe a week or two.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) August 18, 2014
Defensive tackle is a "great concern" for the Vols right now, Jones told Callahan. If Saulsberry can get back on the field, he has the size and athleticism to team with former Gainesville (Fla.) High School teammate Jordan Williams in the center of UT's revamped defensive line.
Saulsberry is a player who can be a major difference-maker when at 100 percent. Considering there aren't many proven players for the Vols on that line, they need him.
Passing the Test
When the Neyland Stadium lights came on Saturday night, some 40,000 fans were present to watch the Vols' open scrimmage.
"Some people dream of playing in front of 40,000 fans, at Tennessee we practice in front of 40,000 fans!" - Butch... http://t.co/1F8egpiNZm— govols247.com (@govols247) August 17, 2014
They saw an offense that was by all accounts efficient—if not spectacular—mere days after Justin Worley was named the starting quarterback.
In that near-game setting, Josh Malone surged again, and the Vols offense hummed along pretty well, according to Volquest.com's Rob Lewis (subscription required).
Worley told Lewis:
I thought I did well. We didn't do a lot of new stuff, didn't install anything for today. We executed well in that second series that we played out, drove down the field in a matter of a couple of plays. That was good to see, I thought we responded well overall with the crowed out here and everything.
Thankfully, Jones realized he needed to name a starting quarterback sooner rather than later. With the shackles off, the offense can get synced up with Worley, and the Vols will be better for it.
While UT didn't have as many "splash plays" again as it would have liked, the offense had a little extra motivation during Saturday's scrimmage. Junior receiver Von Pearson told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) it was easy to get pumped up with that many people in the stands for practice.
Yeah, it did (fire me up). I can’t wait until the Utah State game, you know what I’m saying? … can’t believe how many people were here for practice. Sixty-nine thousand for a spring game, and then this tonight? I can’t believe that.
Updates on Tennessee's Top Position Battles
In addition to Robertson looking like he's going to be firmly in the mix to start along a shaken-up offensive line for the Vols, there are plenty of other starters yet to be determined.
Those battles likely will last well into the season.
Though true freshman Emmanuel Moseley has held down the cornerback position opposite Cameron Sutton since spring practice, he lost that grasp in the past week to a walk-on.
But Michael Williams is not an average walk-on. The former Maryland track star transferred to UT to play both sports, and the third-year sophomore has turned heads with his physicality, according to Rucker (subscription required).
He's also the brother of NFL veteran defensive back Madieu Williams, so he has some impressive bloodlines, too.
The 5'11" cornerback has surged ahead of Moseley and fellow freshman Rashaan Gaulden, but that's a battle that will likely go on for a while.
Tennessee very well could start three current or former walk-ons: LT Jacob Gilliam, CB Michael Williams & S Devaun Swafford— Daniel Lewis (@Daniel_LewisRTI) August 18, 2014
Volquest.com's John Brice and Grant Ramey (subscription required) noted that George Bullock is still ahead of freshman Aaron Medley for place-kicking duties.
They also reported that Alton "Pig" Howard trotted out with Pearson and Marquez North as first-team receivers as the Vols continue to show extreme depth and talent at that position.
RockyTopInsider.com's Houston Kress said of JUCO transfer Chris Weatherd, who is carving a role in pass-rush situations: "This guy is FAST. Weatherd just has such an explosive burst when making his first move to the quarterback, and he often gets to the offensive lineman before the player is even out of his stance."
While Jalen Reeves-Maybin and A.J. Johnson are entrenched as starters at linebacker, Weatherd, Elliott Berry and Dillon Bates all could find themselves on the field at outside spots in various packages.
Though sophomore Devaun Swafford continues to keep a small distance between himself and second-team safety Todd Kelly Jr., it wouldn't be surprising to see Kelly overtake him soon.
Jones told Volquest.com's Austin Price (subscription required) "the game is slowing down" for Kelly. He has the size and speed to be special soon, and it's going to be extremely difficult to keep him off the field.
Roundup from Rocky Top (News and Notes)
- According to Jones' official Twitter account, two more UT players (Kelly and junior defensive tackle Owen Williams) lost their black stripes this week.
- It's certainly possible that senior punter Matt Darr could experience the same final-year resurgence as Michael Palardy did a season ago. Kress noted Darr has been "consistently kicking the ball 45-55 yards in the air with a few sprinkled in that went even further than that."
- UT junior defensive end Curt Maggitt is still not back from an ankle injury that has hobbled him for a week, but he is not expected to miss any game action.
- Freshman running back Jalen Hurd told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) his shoulder is "100 percent" nearly a year removed from surgery to repair a labrum tear. Like always, Hurd's media session this week was as impressive as his on-field play.
#Vols Fr RB Jalen Hurd handles media interviews like he came out of the womb with a hoard of media in his face.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) August 19, 2014
All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports composite rankings. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here: