Tennessee Football: Underclassmen with Best Chance to Earn Starting Spot in 2016
There's plenty of talent on the Tennessee football roster now that coach Butch Jones has used three full recruiting cycles to outfit the Volunteers with star power, and much of those are freshmen and sophomores.
So, while the 2016 UT football team will be the first one in several years to feature veteran starters all over the field, that doesn't mean the underclassmen will be reduced to spectator roles. When you are forced to play so early in your career the way many Vols have recently, you can be young and a veteran at the same time.
From the bookends of the offensive line to the interior in the other trench, Tennessee will play a lot of first- and second-year players in key roles in what the Vols expect will be their best team in years.
That bodes well for the future as well as the present.
When you've signed such huge, star-studded classes as Jones has during the past three classes, things get crowded at the top. Not everybody can be one of the 22 players who trot out there to start the game.
The Vols should be really good, and they aren't shying away from it.
"We're not gonna hide from these expectations," Jones told the crowd on the first leg of Tennessee’s statewide recruiting celebration tour, according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker. "This is what we expect, and this is what we work for. We're Tennessee."
But which underclassmen have the best chances to start?
While a player like Jauan Jennings could see his chance to start get delayed by a position switch if he moves from receiver to safety, someone like redshirt freshman Vincent Perry has several upperclassmen that he must usurp. Those young guys are talented, but they may not be the first guys out there in the first game.
Whether they've had starting experience already, their paths have been cleared by players who've exhausted their eligibility, or they're simply too talented to keep off the field, a few young Vols should seize the spotlight this year.
Rashaan Gaulden, RS Sophomore, Nickelback/Safety
Rashaan Gaulden was well on his way to a starting—and perhaps even a starring—role for the Vols in 2015 before a preseason broken foot ended his sophomore year before it started.
Now, the third-year sophomore will try to break down the door to start in a crowded, talented secondary this season.
He has the chops to do it.
The 6'1", 178-pound Spring Hill, Tennessee, native is already familiar with new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop after being recruited by the coach when he held the same position at Vanderbilt. Gaulden has an ideal skill set for Shoop's defense, with the perfect blend of speed and big-hitting ability.
While Gaulden was all set to be the starting nickelback in former coordinator John Jancek's scheme, it wouldn't be surprising to see him slide back a level and be a safety under Shoop.
With Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil both out of eligibility, the Vols desperately need able safeties. They have a lot of strong options now that versatile defensive backs Nigel Warrior and Tyler Byrd signed with UT last week.
They join Todd Kelly Jr., Evan Berry, Stephen Griffin and perhaps even Micah Abernathy at the position. If Jennings moves over from offense, that spot would get even more crowded.
So, why wouldn't Gaulden stay at nickelback? The short answer is because Malik Foreman ended the '15 season playing at a high level at the position and will be a returning senior starter.
Regardless of where he plays, Gaulden will definitely play. And the smart money is he'll start at either nickelback or safety. He's too talented not to, and with his nose for the football, athleticism and tackling ability, he'll be way too strong of a player to keep off the field.
The Vols will be better when Gaulden is in the lineup, no matter where he lines up.
Chance Hall, Sophomore, Offensive Tackle
Why wouldn't Chance Hall start in 2016? After all, from the moment he stepped into the starting role thanks to injuries during the Georgia game, the first-year player from Virginia didn't relinquish it.
With Tennessee expected to be young and shallow at the position and left tackle Kyler Kerbyson out of eligibility, the 6'4", 318-pound Hall will be a staple as a starter if he's healthy.
The Vols simply didn't miss a beat when he joined the lineup. He started the season's final seven games and helped guide UT to the second-highest rushing total in school history. He's a road-grading bookend who is also athletic enough to be effective in pass blocking.
It's even possible that Hall may be better equipped to guard Joshua Dobbs' blind side, but regardless of whether he plays on the right or left, he'll start somewhere.
His performance in 2015 earned him Freshman All-America nods from the Sporting News, 247Sports and Scout.com, as well as earned him a spot on the All-SEC Freshman team. All of that after not even playing his senior year of high school after tearing his Achilles.
Hall not only will be a sure starter this year, but he's a prime prospect to be a longtime NFL tackle in a couple of years; he's that good.
His ability was obvious from the first play that he got on the field against the Bulldogs. Offensive line coach Don Mahoney told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan that he showed his maturity very early on:
The first play against Georgia that Chance got in was a situation in which he had a critical decision to make on the given play call. He didn't flinch in terms of the call made. He came off. I looked at him and smiled. We didn't convert on the third down, but I smiled. To myself, I said, 'We're going to be just fine.' I was excited for him.
Tennessee should be excited about Hall's future, too.
Darrin Kirkland Jr., Sophomore, Middle Linebacker
Perhaps the biggest young star on Tennessee's resurgent 2015 season was middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr.
The first-year player from Indianapolis decommitted from Michigan when Brady Hoke was fired and eventually pledged to Tennessee, giving the Vols their top choice in the entire 2015 cycle at middle linebacker. He proved why early.
After walk-on Colton Jumper failed to impress early in the year, Kirkland entered the starting lineup and immediately was an upgrade. By the end of the season, he was battling outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin for the team lead in tackles almost every single game.
He finished fourth on the team with 66 tackles and added 6.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks and an interception that he nearly returned for a touchdown. Only Arkansas' Dre Greenlaw had more tackles as a freshman in the SEC.
Most importantly, by the end of the 2015 season when the Tennessee defense was playing at a high level after a rough start, Kirkland was making all the calls and lining up personnel as the nuances of the defense became a second language to him.
Kirkland is exactly the kind of cerebral field general that you want to lead the defense into learning a new scheme, which is what the Vols will be doing now that Shoop is in town. A sophisticated scheme needs a sophisticated middle linebacker to help the team adjust, and the Vols have one.
When the 6'1", 224-pound linebacker signed, the Vols knew they had the total package at middle linebacker. He's big, he can hit, he's smart, and he possesses the sideline-to-sideline speed necessary to solidify the center of the field.
If he doesn't start in '16, it'll be one of the biggest shockers of the season.
Jonathan Kongbo/Kyle Phillips, Sophomores, Defensive End
After a week-plus process that had Tennessee fans wringing their hands, prized JUCO defensive end Jonathan Kongbo finally faxed his national letter of intent to Knoxville on Thursday, according to Rucker.
The Vols didn't recruit the 6'5 ½", 264-pound top-ranked overall junior college player for him to stand on the sideline.
"Our defense just got a lot better," Jones told Callahan of Kongbo on national signing day. "He has leadership qualities. Again, he’s mature. He's been around. He's a great addition to our entire football team, our football players. They embraced him, and when he came up here (on his official visit), there was no doubt in our mind that this was going to be home for him."
He has three years to play three seasons on Rocky Top, and you'd better believe that he'll be playing soon enough. Though he's raw, a player with his ability and skill set doesn't stay off the field for long.
The good news for Tennessee fans is he'll be battling with another elite talent (not to mention two wily veteran seniors) to start opposite Derek Barnett on the other side of the defensive line.
Kongbo may have his path blocked by Kyle Phillips, who was one of Tennessee's prized commitments from last year's class who never really got his career surging as a freshman due to injuries and playing out of position on the interior.
If Phillips stays on the outside, he could begin to realize his limitless potential under Shoop, who recruited him heavily out of the midstate (Nashville area) when Shoop was at Vanderbilt. Phillips is a havoc-wreaking force who will be a hard guy to move out of the starting job if he can nail it down.
Throw in Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis, and defensive line coach Steve Stripling has a nice problem heading into spring practice. That line is crowded and strong on paper. Defensive end may just be the deepest position on the team.
But Kongbo and Phillips have that "it" factor that should allow one of them to start. Both of them won't, but one probably will. It's going to be a fun battle to see which one comes out on top.
Kahlil McKenzie, Sophomore, Defensive Tackle
Kahlil McKenzie didn't have that 5-star splash that many predicted he would coming out of high school.
That doesn't mean he's a disappointment who won't live up to his ranking, though. Far from it.
Instead, the 6'3", 344-pound defensive tackle and son of former UT great and Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie had a longer acclimation period that was probably good for him in the long run.
McKenzie realized he needs to drop a few pounds, and an offseason in the weight room will pay massive dividends for him, especially considering he was forced to miss his senior year of high school after transferring and dealt with a knee injury in the interim.
By the time the end of the season rolled around, McKenzie began looking like the run-stuffing, lane-clogging force that he was recruited to be. Also, for a kid his size, he has surprising burst and athleticism and will be in a much better position to disrupt opposing offenses as a sophomore.
With him and sophomore teammate Shy Tuttle, the Vols have a pair of exciting defensive tackles for the next couple of years.
McKenzie is the type of player who others follow, and that leadership ability and vocal prowess will only continue to grow the more he's on the field.
His swagger will grow with his reps, and he's a bit of a forgotten man after struggling to get his career going while playing one of college football's most difficult positions to crack the rotation as a first-year player. But McKenzie has plenty of time left to dominate, and he has the size, ability and pedigree to do so.
A guy that big with that kind of rating doesn't stay in the shadows long. The prediction here is that McKenzie will break out in a big way in 2016, and he will keep developing into one of the SEC's top run-stuffing defensive tackles.
When he does, the Vols are going to be that much better on defense.
Drew Richmond, RS Freshman, Offensive Tackle
When Drew Richmond flipped from Ole Miss to Tennessee on national signing day of 2015, Vols fans everywhere thought they had their franchise tackle of the future.
But few—including Richmond—thought they'd have to wait a full year before seeing the Memphis star perform.
The 6'5", 301-pound former blue-chip recruit redshirted last season with the Vols staying relatively healthy at the position. Since they never really needed Richmond to log any time, he was able to work out, learn the system and improve.
It may have been a difficult year for him to endure, but it'll benefit Richmond and the Vols in the long run.
Though he had to wait the entire season, he had his stripe removed from his practice helmet during bowl practice. The removal of a stripe is a rite of passage for newcomers at UT. When they become dependable players, the stripe comes off.
"His whole mentality, the way he approaches practice. The offensive line was going to take his stripe off, but the defensive line beat them to it," Jones said when Richmond's stripe was removed, according to FoxSports.com's Michael Wayne Bratton. "But he continues to get better. And, also, you see a level of confidence continue to grow in him, as well."
That belief should pay major dividends as quickly as this year. With Hall entrenched on one side, Richmond will battle Brett Kendrick and perhaps even freshmen Ryan Johnson and Nathan Niehaus for a starting spot at tackle. Both of the latter players likely need time to develop, so it should be a two-player trench war.
It's possible that Jack Jones could slide back outside too, but right now, it looks like Richmond's job to lose.
Richmond winning that spot would be huge for Tennessee, given his ability. If he begins to live up to expectations, the Vols won't miss a beat following Kerbyson's departure.
It could be argued that Richmond's progress is one of the most important storylines on the entire team. If he is the kind of player the Vols thought they'd get when he signed, it'll be a big year for the lineman.
Shy Tuttle, Sophomore, Defensive Tackle
One of the brightest young defensive stars for Tennessee last year was defensive tackle Shy Tuttle until a dirty block in the Georgia game cut his season short.
That ensuing ankle injury cost Tuttle the remainder of the year and all of the upcoming spring, as well.
But if the 6'2", 311-pound Midway, North Carolina, trench man comes back with as much vengeance as he arrived with in Knoxville a season ago, he'll be just fine. Though quiet and unassuming, Tuttle was a terror during last spring practice, turning coaches' heads everywhere.
He parlayed that into an early season where he was firmly in the rotation and earning most of the reps by the middle of the year. Then, the broken fibula came, and it was rehab time for the youngster.
Tuttle had 10 tackles, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick before he was hurt, but statistics can't measure his value. He was becoming one of the most dependable linemen on the team and was helping the Vols solidify the center of a defense that had been troublesome early in the year.
With the rising sophomore having to miss more time, a starting spot is no guarantee. McKenzie should seize some playing time, and the addition of newcomer JUCO transfer Alexis Johnson will firm up the rotation, too. Senior Danny O'Brien will also earn reps.
But keeping Tuttle off the field won't be easy. Not only does he have the ability to step right in once he returns and start, but he could be an all-conference player before his days on Rocky Top end.
He's big and strong, but he also has surprisingly agile footwork for a man his size and gets after the quarterback once he gets in the backfield. He'd play for anybody in the SEC, and the Vols will certainly be happy to get him back.
Once he is, it would be unwise to bet against him being one of the first two tackles to trot onto the field.
Preston Williams, Sophomore, Wide Receiver
Tennessee's revamped receiving corps is entering put-up or shut-up time after posting three disappointing years in a row.
Everybody is eager to see if the cast of new faces can perform better than the ones who never lived up to expectations.
With Marquez North, Von Pearson and Johnathon Johnson gone and Jason Croom moving to tight end this spring, the Vols are going to have a lot of guys who've not seen a ton of reps step into the spotlight alongside Josh Malone and Josh Smith.
Players such as Vincent Perry, Marquez Callaway, Latrell Williams, Jeff George and Corey Henderson all have exciting skill sets that can translate well in the type of offense Jones wants to run. But the receiver with the most upside in the bunch is 6'4", 209-pound sophomore Preston Williams.
After tearing his anterior cruciate ligament midway through his senior season at Lovejoy High School in Georgia, few thought Williams would make any impact at all during his first year in Knoxville. Though he was limited in his preseason drills, Williams proved everybody wrong.
Following a retake of the ACT and after a quick rehab, Williams hauled in two touchdown grabs against Western Carolina. He finished with seven catches for 158 yards on the year.
A hamstring injury that kept nagging him cost him virtually half of the year, or those numbers would have been better. While his game-turning fumble against Arkansas proved costly, that shouldn't be the lasting image of his season.
Williams is tall, rangy and physical. Most importantly, he's one of the few Vols receivers who can stretch the field, and if he's healthy, he'll have the ability to be a massive weapon for Dobbs.
Most of the top programs in the Southeast recruited Williams and wanted him to be a part of their receiving corps. He showed flashes of why last year. Now, passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni must take that diamond and polish him until he becomes the shining player he can be.
If Williams breaks out this year, the Vols may put those receiving woes in the rearview mirror.
All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All individual stats gathered from UTSports.com unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.