Each spring of head coach Butch Jones' tenure in Knoxville, Tennessee, has been met with anticipation, but there's arguably never been a Tennessee football practice more welcomed than this year's.
Not only are the Volunteers expected to be excellent in 2016, the offseason Title IX lawsuit turmoil that has embroiled the university and athletic department has been difficult to escape as it has dominated numerous news cycles.
For the past week, it's been nice to be able to talk about football for a change.
And, boy, have the reports been encouraging for UT so far. Jones' success on the recruiting trail has translated extremely well to the rebuild on Rocky Top as the Vols have gotten progressively better each year. Just 10 players recruited by former head coach Derek Dooley remain, and the roster flip is evident on the field this spring.
This year's Vols should be a deep, strong and talented football team bolstered by being coached by the same coaches and in the same strength and conditioning program for most of their entire careers.
The staff changes that have been made (trading defensive coordinator John Jancek for Bob Shoop and tight ends coach Mark Elder for Larry Scott) should be upgrades.
Even those veteran coaches are gushing about the Vols' workmanship approach. GoVols247's Wes Rucker recently spoke with Shoop, who is impressed with some of the leadership he's already seen:
New #Vols DC Bob Shoop told me watching film with Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland is “like watching film with 10-year NFL vets."— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) March 8, 2016
Few positions should give Tennessee trouble this year. There are still a few question marks about defensive tackle depth, and the left offensive tackle job is open along with plenty of receiver battles, but there is talent galore. There appear to be several potential answers in places where there are questions.
Even the players aren't shy to talk about their excitement.
"We have a lot of depth, and it's huge," quarterback Joshua Dobbs told Rucker. "I mean, this program's really night and day since I got here. It's great to see we're headed in the right direction. But our key this year, you know, is we’re trying to take the next step in moving forward.
How big is that step? SEC East? SEC championship? Perhaps even more?
They certainly passed the eyeball test after the first week of spring. So, let's take a look at some of the storylines dominating Tennessee's fall camp thus far.
The gap is closed
Perhaps the most eye-opening thing throughout the entire first week is just how infrequently everybody has heard about the Vols' known stars.
Little has been mentioned about Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton. That's because they're doing little. And, why not? Jones and the coaching staff already know what they're going to get from those guys.
There's no reason for them to be churning out rep after rep and risking injury.
When you talk about the top level of talent at Tennessee, everybody around the SEC can name those guys. But it's the depth and speed of the underclassmen that could separate this group and finally lead to them competing for meaningful things.
Players such as Preston Williams, Jauan Jennings, Vincent Perry and Jeff George are standing out in the receiving corps. Everybody has been raving about the defensive backs and linebackers, too. The offensive line is impressing, and defensive end depth is sick.
Simply put, this is a different team. It looks original, and the speed of the game has been noticeably different to everybody watching.
"Their athleticism stands out," Volquest.com's Paul Fortenberry said on a video of observations this week. "I think they like their skill guys. ... But these first two days, I think we've come to appreciate what they have in terms of their skill guys and their athleticism."
When the pads go on, the attention will shift to redshirt freshman left tackle Drew Richmond and sophomore defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie, who has changed his body. Redshirt freshman defensive end Darrell Taylor is drawing rave reviews, too, for his speed off the edge.
It's not a big surprise that UT looks like a quality SEC team a year removed from a 9-4 campaign that featured four losses by a combined 17 points. But this is a team big, fast and physical enough to compete with anybody on the schedule.
That's huge news in what could be an exciting year. One of Tennessee's slogans this year is being "elite" and trying to make that jump from "good" to "great." It appears the Vols are off to a solid start on the field:
Emerging star on the perimeter?
If there's been one player who has been the talk of the camp so far, it would be Williams.
Last year around this time, nobody could stop yapping about freshman defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, who turned heads early. He wound up making an immediate impact and was becoming one of the team's two best interior linemen before a season-ending injury against Georgia cost him the rest of the season.
Now, Williams will try to be the next buzzworthy player who turns potential into production.
The 6'4", 209-pound sophomore receiver from Lovejoy, Georgia, was one of the most coveted pass-catchers in the country when he chose UT. He battled back from a nasty knee injury as a high school senior and an ACT issue that kept him off the field for much of fall practice to make a quick impact.
He had two touchdown grabs against Western Carolina, but then, a nagging hamstring injury limited him throughout the last part of his freshman year. Now that he's healthy and refocused, the player nicknamed The Resort may be a regular destination for Dobbs passes in 2016.
He's big and strong, as evidenced by this tweet from the Daily Times' Austin Bornheim:
Josh Smith, Jauan Jennings, Preston Williams and Jeff George working through drills. pic.twitter.com/aIPNi2lbdN— Austin Bornheim (@ABornheim) March 8, 2016
It looks like he's worked a lot in the weight room, and if he has his head on straight, there are few limits to Williams' potential.
Williams got his black stripe removed in the first week, which is a rite of passage for UT players. He's starred on the field and looks like he is ready to step up, especially in the absence of injured leading receiver Josh Malone, who won't be healthy until the summer.
"You can't help but be impressed by Preston Williams," GoVols247's Ryan Callahan told Vince Ferrara and John Adams on GVX Audio. "It looks like he's really taken a step from the end of last season."
The Vols haven't had a legitimate receiving weapon since Justin Hunter's final year in Knoxville, which also happened to be Cordarrelle Patterson's only season wearing orange and white.
With UT's shift to faster, yards-after-catch-oriented targets, having somebody big and fast who can stretch the field like Williams is vital. He really could play a major role in this offense. If he emerges, it'll only make the Vols much more dangerous.
Top-end talent on the defense's back end
Last year, one of the strengths of Tennessee's team was supposed to be the third level of the defense.
With star junior Cameron Sutton anchoring down one edge and the senior duo of Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil at safety, the Vols should have been great in the secondary.
But the bizarre one-game suspension of defensive backs coach Willie Martinez in a season opener where Bowling Green receivers consistently torched UT led to a rocky early season on the back end.
As the year progressed, Malik Foreman began to grow into the role of nickelback, Sutton began to look like himself again and Randolph did, too. Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley began rounding into form, and by the end of the year, the defensive backs looked good.
This year, they should be even better.
Not only is Shoop around now, along with his reputation of developing stellar safeties, but the Vols have much more talent in the secondary. Though Randolph and McNeil are gone, potential stars abound.
Rashaan Gaulden is back and playing for the injured Evan Berry at safety along with Todd Kelly Jr. Micah Abernathy is turning heads at safety, too. Martin, Moseley, true freshman Marquill Osborne and others are back there, and Sutton is going to be steady regardless.
If UT can get pressure on opposing quarterbacks up front, Shoop's addition should really help the defensive backs to be aggressive. There's so much talent that Tennessee can play matchups, and the Vols will have even more weapons at their disposal once Nigel Warrior and Tyler Byrd get on campus this summer.
Shoop told Callahan earlier last week that he's thrilled with the options, particularly at safety:
I'm excited about Rashaan. Rashaan's had two excellent days. Todd Kelly probably has the most game experience at safety, but Rashaan, he's had two really good practices. Micah Abernathy's had two really good practices. And Stephen Griffin has had two really good practices.
I feel like a position that may have been a perceived weakness, because you lose Randolph and McNeil, could well be a position of strength. All those guys are highly recruited players, and they're competing very well. They're very diligent in the film room. They're trying to do the right things, communicating and making plays on the field.
And then, obviously, come (preseason) camp, when you get Tyler Byrd or a Nigel Warrior here, it's going to even be more competitive. And those guys are well aware of that, and they’re competing with one another.
With all that talent back there, the Vols will almost certainly be able to field a group of athletes that will cause fits for opposing quarterbacks.
Rocky Top roundup
- One of the battles to watch this spring is at left tackle, and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord told Callahan that Richmond and fifth-year senior Dontavius Blair are battling for that spot right now.
- There have been several notable position moves this spring that already are paying dividends, such as Dillon Bates shifting back to outside linebacker and Austin Smith moving down to defensive end. But the biggest move that could cause the quickest waves is Jason Croom to tight end. Croom told Callahan he wants to add a different "element" to UT's offense.
- Sophomore defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie is still big; huge even at 6'3", 344 pounds. But he has redefined his body, and he is making a much bigger splash than he did a year ago. Middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown of McKenzie: "He's a man amongst boys."
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.