Tennessee Football: Players with the Most to Gain in Spring Practices

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2016

Tennessee Football: Players with the Most to Gain in Spring Practices

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    When the 2016 rendition of the Tennessee football spring practice starts on March 7, it may finally help turn the page on a chapter of the offseason that has, thus far, been forgettable.

    It also will be the first real chance to get back to football after so many off-the-field distractions. It appears UT will approach the practices with a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality.

    Senior outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin told the Tennessean's Matt Slovin when addressing the culture around the program: "You can't listen to what people say. We've got to focus on us."

    There are plenty of positive distractions from which the Vols should avert their eyes from as well. They are going to be picked high in the polls after surging toward the end of '15 and making continuous steps forward during coach Butch Jones' first three years in Knoxville.

    They have to block out all that hype and focus on improving. For several of the Vols, the sessions during March and April are pivotal to the immediate and future facets of their careers on Rocky Top. 

    Unlike the past few years, most of the starting spots are fairly secured. UT is deep and talented and should be exciting at many positions. But that doesn't mean there aren't spots to be won. 

    Talent breeds competition, and the Vols have a lot of it after Jones restocked the shelves the past few years. Especially on defense, new coordinator Bob Shoop will be holding open auditions with a clean slate. Playmakers are needed, and there are several areas where the depth chart isn't solidified.

    Lots of Vols have opportunities.

    This group doesn't even mention guys such as redshirt freshman defensive end Darrell Taylor, sophomore defensive back Micah Abernathy, freshman defensive back Marquill Osborne, sophomore athlete Jauan Jennings and redshirt freshman receiver Vincent Perry, who all could earn key reps.

    That just shows you the depth of players who have the chance for big things with big springs.

    Let's take a look at eight Vols who have the most to gain during spring drills.

Evan Berry, Junior Safety

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    This is the time for the nation's most electrifying kick returner to become more than just a special teams weapon.

    Evan Berry had a historic season fielding kicks in 2015, leading the nation with a 38.3-yard average and taking three back to the house for touchdowns. The 5'11", 207-pound brother of All-Pro safety Eric Berry certainly made a name for himself during his sophomore season.

    There's no reason to believe he'll be anything but that same force on special teams again in '16. But can he take a step forward on defense and follow in his brother's footsteps in the defensive backfield?

    He'll get that opportunity this spring. And while it may be asking a lot for him to become an All-American on defense like he already is in special teams, he has a strong enough skill set to help UT on the back end immediately.

    Tennessee lost senior safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil after the '15 season. While Todd Kelly Jr. is expected to start (and star) at one of those spots, there's also a strong possibility that he could play Shoop's "Star" position that is essentially a hybrid linebacker/defensive back. 

    If that's the case, there may be times where he's on the field with a pair of other safeties.

    This is a golden opportunity for Berry to assert himself and seize a spot on the back end. He has elite speed, and though the nuances of coverage skills and fluidity within the framework of a play aren't as innate to him as they were to Eric, the younger Berry improved as last year wore on.

    With elite prospects such as Nigel Warrior and Tyler Byrd coming in this summer—players who could break into the rotation at safety right away—now is the time for Berry to separate himself. He has the ability to solidify Tennessee's need for safeties.

    He just has to take it and run with it, just like he did with kickoffs a season ago.

Jason Croom, Redshirt Senior Tight End

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    Several times in a long, frustrating, injury-riddled career, Jason Croom looked as if he were on the precipice of a breakout.

    Now, here he stands as a 6'5", 246-pound redshirt senior who has missed large swaths of time rehabbing, including all of 2015 following a knee scope. Throughout his career, he has 39 catches for 574 yards and six touchdowns, but he's just never quite become a force.

    All that could change with a position swap in 2016.

    Entering what in all likelihood will be his final year in Knoxville (barring a potential sixth year being awarded by the NCAA due to his injury troubles), Croom is going to get a shot to be a tight end, where, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Dustin Dopirak, he played during bowl practices.

    Given Croom's huge frame, big hands and physicality, it seems he'd be perfect for the position. After spending the first four years of his career as a wide receiver, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he could become a dynamic weapon for the Vols in the mold of Alabama's O.J. Howard.

    Folks around Knoxville already are raving about his work ethic this offseason.

    If Croom can't cut it at tight end, he'll just move back to receiver. There, he'd get plenty of opportunities to shine, but he wouldn't be quite the mismatch for defenses that he'd be as a tight end. 

    With the departure of Alex Ellis, UT needs somebody to partner with junior Ethan Wolf. If the Vols can run two-tight end sets, it would make them a lot more multiple. Considering neither Jakob Johnson nor Neiko Creamer has much experience at the position, this is a great shot for Croom.

    Can he block enough to stick in-line? Is he physical enough to body up and eventually beat outside linebackers who try to hang with him in the slot? If he is, it'll be an intriguing move for everybody involved.

    And the Vols may have a star on their hands.

Rashaan Gaulden, Redshirt Sophomore Defensive Back

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    Last year, Rashaan Gaulden was all set to be a standout player for the Vols at nickelback before a season-ending foot injury suffered in fall drills cost him that chance.

    Now, a season later, he will try to duplicate his past spring when he won the team's Andy Spiva award for the team's most improved defensive player. He'll just likely be doing it from another position.

    With Malik Foreman now expected to start at nickel following a strong finish to last season, Gaulden is locked in at safety for now. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop told Dopirak recently that's he's excited to see the redshirt sophomore on the back level of UT's defense.

    "Rashaan, I think it's his time now," Shoop said. "If Rashaan can stay healthy, he can be special at the safety position, I think."

    That's high praise coming from a defensive backs guru like the Vols' new defensive coordinator. Shoop's words leave little doubt where Gaulden is right now, though Shoop also said he was in the second team behind Berry and Kelly.

    He'll be far too talented to keep on the bench. Arguably, Gaulden was the Vols' second-best defensive back a season ago until he got hurt, trailing only Cameron Sutton. He's a hard hitter and a smart player and plays with the instinctive reckless abandon you want to see your secondary possess.

    He's also versatile, as he's able to play safety, nickel or perhaps even the "Star" position. 

    Gaulden needs to prove that he can stay healthy. Ever since his days at Independence High School outside of Nashville, he's shown plenty of promise. But after showing out on special teams in his first season, he was primed to play a lot of defense for the Vols last year.

    Now, he must prove himself again. This spring will be a strong chance to do that.

Quinten Dormady, Sophomore Quarterback

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    You may be wondering why a player with zero chance to start, barring injury, would be on this list.

    This is a huge spring for sophomore quarterback Quinten Dormady to further prove that he can be the man to lead the Vols offense once Joshua Dobbs heads to the NFL after this year.

    The 6'4", 216-pound signal-caller from Boerne, Texas, was impressive at times in mop-up duty as a true freshman, but he was awful in the Outback Bowl. That wasn't the best way to leave a lasting impression on coaches and fans.

    Even so, there's no denying the strong-armed Texan's ability. Is he the best schematic fit for the read-option offense UT is currently employing? No. But he also isn't devoid of athleticism and has proved he can do enough running to keep defenses honest.

    A few of the throws he made last year were ones that Dobbs couldn't do consistently, which gave Vols fans everywhere a jolt of excitement to think what this offense could be with a dynamic passer.

    One thing is for sure, though: Dormady had better start impressing quickly. Elite prospect Jarrett Guarantano—the nation's top-ranked dual-threat quarterback, according to the 247Sports composite rankings—will be on campus this summer, and he's not coming to town to ride the bench.

    The 6'4", 201-pound New Jersey native has the skill set and swagger to wrestle the job away for himself once Dobbs leaves, and it'll be a clash of styles with Dormady's more traditional pro-style traits. Also, don't discount Sheriron Jones, who'll be in the mix as well.

    But Dormady, right now, is the man. He was Dobbs' backup a season ago, and there's nothing that should deter anybody from thinking he'll be that moving forward until somebody takes it from him.

    This spring is a chance for Dormady to keep turning heads and wowing everybody around him. With the talent the Vols are recruiting to the position now and in the future, he'll have to play at a high level if he's going to inherit the offense.

Kahlil McKenzie, Sophomore Defensive Tackle

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    Few prospects in the nation were touted as much as former 5-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie coming out of high school a season ago. Despite not playing as a prep senior thanks to a transfer rule in California, the jumbo lineman was thought to be college-ready.

    But 2015 proved just how difficult it is to play defensive tackle in the SEC right away.

    At 6'3", 344 pounds, McKenzie was a little too overweight and out of shape to make an immediate, consistent impact. Also, that he was so rusty after missing a year, didn't arrive until the summer and had rehabbed torn meniscus in his knee as a high school senior didn't help.

    It took him most of the year to begin to show everybody why he was rated so highly. But, after UT's win over Missouri, defensive line coach Steve Stripling began to sing his praises to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan:

    I think it was probably about a third of the way through the season, I think the light finally clicked on that, 'I need to practice harder, and I can't just stand up and push people around like I've done my whole life. There's some pretty good players on that field,' I think the light's just going on. It's maturity. He's a young man that you can tell is developing and maturing as we go.

    That development continued when McKenzie registered four tackles in the Outback Bowl win over Northwestern. Now, with him dropping pounds and trying to get in better shape before the season starts, the sky is the limit for his potential.

    With his dad, Reggie, being a former NFL player who is currently the general manager of the Oakland Raiders, McKenzie knows what it takes to play at a high level. Things didn't come as easily to him as he perhaps would have liked a season ago, but he has plenty of time to rectify that.

    With Shy Tuttle out for the spring and the Vols battling some depth concerns at the position, it's vital that McKenzie not only start but shine at defensive tackle. If he can become a game-changing force, UT's defense will have the opportunity to be special in '16.

Drew Richmond, Redshirt Freshman Offensive Tackle

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Perhaps the biggest opportunity of anybody on the team belongs to redshirt freshman offensive tackle Drew Richmond.

    There is a golden-paved road from the bench to the starting left tackle position on a team that has all the pieces to compete for an SEC championship in 2016. All Richmond has to do is live up to his massive potential and take advantage of it.

    The 6'5", 301-pound lineman from Memphis was the nation's third-ranked tackle coming out of Memphis University School last year when he became one of the Vols' biggest storylines of the recruiting season by flipping to them from Ole Miss on national signing day.

    But he simply wasn't ready to play right away.

    Instead of traveling with the team on road trips, Richmond began to stay back in Knoxville and get extra workouts in with fellow redshirting offensive lineman Venzell Boulware. A season later, he's ready to take his turn in the spotlight.

    Considering the high-profile nature of the position he plays and the desperate need the Vols have for an impact player protecting Dobbs' blind side, Richmond may just be the most important player on the team.

    While he's getting an on-field audition this spring, his biggest competitor will be doing the same on the other side of the line. With Chance Hall out this spring, redshirt junior Brett Kendrick also will be holding down the anchor over at right tackle.

    Hall likely won't relinquish that job after looking like a future star as a true freshman in 2015, so it'll be a Richmond-Kendrick battle to start at left tackle. Richmond, at least right now, looks like he's going to be given every opportunity to be "The Man."

    No matter which tackle spot Richmond is best suited to play, the Vols are going to give him the chance to play on that all-important left side to start his career. He'll have big shoes to fill after Kyler Kerbyson had a solid senior season a year ago.

    Now, it's Richmond's turn. He's waited, and he should be hungry. The Vols hope that will show in his play.

Quart'e Sapp, Sophomore Outside Linebacker

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The biggest surprise on this list may just be a guy you haven't heard much about.

    Sophomore outside linebacker Quart'e Sapp was the next in a long line of young Tennessee linebackers who were making their presence felt on special teams a year ago—following in the footsteps of Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cortez McDowell—when he suffered a stress fracture.

    That ended his season after just seven tackles.

    But the 6'2", 214-pound second-year player will get a healthy new dose of opportunity this fall with Shoop at the helm of the defense.

    Under former defensive coordinator John Jancek, it appeared Sapp's path to playing time was blocked by Reeves-Maybin. After all, the Vols mostly just played two linebackers, as the other side was normally anchored by a hybrid defensive end such as Curt Maggitt or Austin Smith.

    Shoop's scheme historically relies a little more on faster, more athletic linebackers who excel in pass coverage. Of course, all of that depends on what's going on situationally, but Sapp (as well as Dillon Bates) has a big opportunity to carve a niche this spring.

    A year ago, the Alpharetta, Georgia, native was a high recruiting target for a long time before the Vols were able to secure him just before national signing day. The Vols didn't have anybody like him on the roster, and they were enamored by his speed and athleticism at the position.

    Now with a year in the system, Sapp has a prime chance to make the same kind of impact that classmates Smith and Darrin Kirkland Jr. did a season ago. 

    When the Vols line up in a traditional 4-3 set, they're much more likely to have three true linebackers under Shoop than they were under Jancek. So, Sapp has to show that he's worthy of some big snaps this spring.

    If he does, UT will find that it has a big weapon on the second level.

Preston Williams, Sophomore Wide Receiver

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    The last time Tennessee had true star receivers who lived up to their billing as prime pass-catchers was in 2012 when current Titan Justin Hunter ended his UT career with 73 catches for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns and Cordarrelle Patterson added 778 more yards.

    That means that in the entire tenure of Jones and wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni, all that talent in Tennessee's receiving corps has gone untapped.

    If the Vols are going to make any significant noise in the quest to win the SEC, that has to change. They simply cannot afford to underachieve anymore catching the football, and they need a surefire stud on the perimeter.

    That's where Preston Williams comes in.

    The sophomore was on the cusp of doing big things in 2015 when a hamstring injury cost him virtually the entire second half of the season. The Hampton, Georgia, native finished with just seven catches for 158 yards and two scores as a freshman.

    He'll do much better than that this year.

    At 6'4", 209 pounds, Williams has the size to be special. He also has the speed to stretch the field and the dynamic playing ability to abuse cornerbacks everywhere. He just has to focus, work hard at improving every aspect of his game and set his sights on being UT's receptions leader.

    Marquez North and Von Pearson are gone. Though Josh Malone has limitless potential, he hasn't displayed the toughness and consistency needed to be a real every-game threat. Neither has Williams, for that matter, but he is the most physically gifted of the entire bunch.

    The Vols have a lot of freshmen coming in, and with the struggles at the position the past few years, playing time is wide-open at every receiving spot. The players who seize the opportunity are the ones who will play. 

    For the Vols' sake, they'd better hope Williams comes into spring focused. Because if he puts everything together, he's a game-changer.

     

    All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports, unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered at 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.