Tennessee Football: Volunteers' Most Important Players at Each Position
A player's importance can be measured in very identifiable traits, and the Tennessee football program has many who are necessary cogs, especially within the framework of what is supposed to be a breakout season.
From guys who the Volunteers would be lost without to others who need to live up to massive expectations in order for the program to, there are players at every position who are needed, relied upon, depended on.
It starts with quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who is arguably the most important player on the entire team. The whole season may depend on whether he stays healthy considering he has three true freshmen behind him on the depth chart.
On one line, an upperclassman has to be the anchor of a shaky unit. On the other side of the trench, a player who has never taken a college snap must show flashes of the transcendent prospect many predict he'll be.
Head coach Butch Jones has assembled an extremely talented team on paper, but the fact is most of them are still freshmen and sophomores.
From the upperclassmen who must teach those young pups winning ways (when they've never won anything of consequence in college) to the youngsters who have to quickly play up to their recruiting rankings, the 2015 Vols are loaded with players who are vital to this program returning to respectability.
Let's take a look at the most important players at every position.
Quarterback: Joshua Dobbs
There is tons of buzz surrounding Tennessee's 6'3", 219-pound junior signal-caller, but Joshua Dobbs has yet to beat any of the SEC's premiere teams.
The Vols need for him to be the dynamic dual-threat player he is capable of being if they're going to start doing that in 2015.
Dobbs has all the skills to be elite. He has a strong arm, and he proved once he took over for the injured Justin Worley last year that he can beat teams with his feet. Those flashes led B/R colleague Barrett Sallee to call Dobbs a Heisman Trophy dark-horse contender back in January. Said Sallee:
"He checks off nearly all the boxes needed to become a Heisman Trophy winner. Quarterback? Check. Video game stats? Check. High-profile program in a high-profile conference? Check. Weapons all around him to help him be successful? Check."
The Alpharetta, Georgia, native did nothing to dampen that hype this spring, as he improved his footwork under new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and was throwing darts all over the spring-practice field.
Indeed, there's a lot to like about Dobbs, but there's a lot left for him to prove. He's vitally important to UT on several different levels.
First of all, the Vols need him to take his game to another level if they're going to beat the Alabamas, Georgias and Oklahomas of the world. Secondly, if he were to get hurt, the true freshman triumvirate of Quinten Dormady, Sheriron Jones and Jauan Jennings are unproven.
Tennessee needs Dobbs to be healthy, and it needs him to be exceptional. So, no pressure, right?
Running Back: Alvin Kamara
After a hugely successful freshman campaign, everybody knows what to expect from rising sophomore Jalen Hurd.
When he's healthy, he has a next-level gear that at least gets him on the cusp of the conversation when it comes to the top running backs in the league. He'll continue to be overshadowed by Nick Chubb and Leonard Fournette, sure, but Hurd is a dependable force.
Still, he needs help.
If he's forced to do it all as he was a season ago, that's a lot of wear and tear, even for a kid who is 6'3", 230 pounds. That's why Alvin Kamara is the most important player in the backfield.
With the SEC battles that take place every single week (not to mention an early out-of-conference date against Oklahoma), Hurd's Batman needs a Robin. Enter Kamara, the former Alabama blue-chip recruit and 5-star JUCO recruit who burst onto the scene with a solid spring.
As Hurd was limited all spring, Kamara carried the load as the only scholarship running back healthy. He proved he can bounce the ball outside and turn the corner or get the tough yards between the tackles.
But the rigors of an SEC schedule are different than a spring practice slate. He's still a bit of an unproven commodity when it comes to playing in settings that matter.
With senior transfer Ralph David Abernathy IV and the freshman duo of John Kelly and Joseph Young behind the duo, the Vols need to depend heavily on Hurd and Kamara to shoulder most of the workload.
Whether Kamara can consistently hold up his end of that will go a long way in determining just how good this offense can be.
Wide Receiver: Marquez North
Ever since Marquez North stepped onto campus on Rocky Top looking like an NFL rookie physically, he's been pegged for a massive career.
Entering his junior season, we're still waiting.
To be completely fair, the 6'4", 224-pound sophomore was off to an excellent start last year before a shoulder injury first hampered his play and then cost him the remainder of the season with surgery.
The Charlotte, North Carolina, native had begun to shown a knack for getting in the end zone, scoring four touchdowns prior to the injury.
The recovery time also cost North the spring, so he'll be coming off a long layoff once he returns this fall.
Still, much is going to be expected of him, especially considering he's the most gifted of anybody in UT's talented-but-underachieving receiving corps. The Vols know what they can expect from senior Pig Howard, but what about after that?
North may just hold the key to the perception and production of the entire unit.
If North can improve upon his first two seasons where he averaged 34 catches, 408 yards and three touchdowns per campaign, Joshua Dobbs could have a dependable downfield target. North possesses the strength and frame to wrestle balls away from defenders, and he's quick enough to get by them.
North has all the skills to be one of the league's best pass-catchers. He is a hard worker who has rehabbed his injury and will be a popular pick for a huge season.
Many believe he'll be a top-shelf NFL prospect sooner rather than later, but the Vols need him to reach his massive potential on the college gridiron first.
Tight End: Ethan Wolf
Early during his freshman campaign, it appeared that Ethan Wolf was going to be a centerpiece of the Vols offense.
Then, from a statistics standpoint, he virtually disappeared.
Against Utah State, Arkansas State and Oklahoma in 2014, Wolf had 13 catches for 115 yards and was a huge target for Justin Worley. He was a blocking force and a pivotal player as UT struggled to find running lanes early in the year.
After he suffered a high ankle sprain, however, the 6'5", 240-pounder was never the same. He had just 10 catches for 97 yards the rest of the year. Though his final numbers were solid for a tight end and also solid for a freshman, he kind of limped to the finish.
"The next step is just to take what I had last year and build on it,’" Wolf told GoVolsXtra's Mike Strange this spring.
Tennessee needs Wolf to be that rising star he was early in the season. Coach Butch Jones' offenses thrive when they have a go-to tight end who can do it all. Look no further than Travis Kelce, who starred for him at Cincinnati before heading to the NFL.
Wolf has the potential and the body type to be like his idol, former UT great Jason Witten. But he has to ensure he doesn't hit a wall like he did a season ago and continues to develop and mature. With his size and blocking ability, he could be great.
He just has to put everything together and keep it there for an entire season.
Offensive Line: Kyler Kerbyson
There wasn't a whole lot said about Tennessee senior starting left tackle Kyler Kerbyson this spring, and that's probably a good thing.
Nobody is glossing over the fact that 2014 was one of ups and downs as Kerbyson—originally an interior lineman—was forced to play outside at tackle. But now that he has moved exclusively to left tackle for his final season, he believes it will help him develop a base of consistency.
"We're getting more molded into our positions, and being able to stay in one spot, which is gonna be nice," Kerbyson told GoVols247's Wes Rucker this spring. "We're a lot more confident this year than we were last year, just having a whole year underneath our belt, all of us coming back."
It helps that quarterback Joshua Dobbs is a dual-threat player who can elude pressure, but that doesn't alleviate the spotlight glare put on a fifth-year senior protecting Dobbs' blind side playing at a position he isn't accustomed to. Those are big concerns.
With the Vols welcoming in a stable of talented linemen including in-state star prospect Drew Richmond, Kerbyson won't just be given the spot.
But this spring, he wasn't challenged by anybody, and the prevailing thought is when UT hits the field for the season opener against Bowling Green, Kerbyson will anchor the unit. That means he'll carry the weight of a maligned unit improving from a season ago.
He'll be a microcosm of that battle.
If Kerbyson is a steady player on the exterior of that line, the Vols will be a better offense. Then, Dobbs will have plenty of time to distribute the ball to talented players all over the field.
Defensive End: Curt Maggitt
Opposing offensive linemen can't afford to pay anybody on Tennessee's defensive front extra attention, not with so much talent at every spot.
So there should be a clear path to senior Curt Maggitt improving on his elite second half of last year and turning into an every-down havoc-wreaker on defense.
With super sophomore Derek Barnett coming off the other end, Maggitt has a teammate who can push him every single day to the brink of his potential. And it is a high ceiling of potential at that.
Maggitt appeared poised to be an All-SEC linebacker a couple of years ago before a nasty knee injury cost him the last part of the 2012 season and all of 2013. As he got his sea legs back under him and got into game shape, Maggitt (who was now playing mostly defensive end) got off to a slow start a season ago.
Then, he was unstoppable.
Maggitt had nine tackles for a loss and eight sacks in the season's final six games. It isn't a coincidence that's when the Vols made their TaxSlayer Bowl run.
Now, the 6'3", 246-pound senior not only needs to prove to NFL scouts that he can be healthy for two consecutive seasons but that he can keep being a playmaker. If he is the same kind of star he was during the final part of last year, opposing quarterbacks will struggle to find time to throw against the Vols.
When that happens, a secondary that already looks stout on paper will look even better, and a defense that should be good could be great.
If Maggitt were to go down, the Vols not only would lose a stud player but the emotional heart and soul of the whole team. That's the definition of importance, and Maggitt's presence is essential to the success of the Vols.
Defensive Tackle: Kahlil McKenzie
There are so many reasons why Kahlil McKenzie needs to live up to the massive expectations that have fallen on his shoulders before he has ever taken a college snap.
None of them are fair, but that doesn't make it any less true.
First, the 6'3", 327-pound defensive tackle plays at a position where the Vols just don't have a ton of bodies. Secondly, of the bodies they do have, none are as massive as McKenzie's tree-trunk legs, large lower body and massive frame.
He already should be one of the strongest players on the team, and UT desperately needs him to be a run-clogging force in the middle of a line that was susceptible to gap-plays a season ago. As Volquest.com's Paul Fortenberry recently wrote in an article outlining takeaways from the TaxSlayer Bowl:
Once Iowa settled down after being shell-shocked early on, the concentrated on spreading Tennessee out and running at them in three-wide receiver sets. That's where they found some success and that's where Tennessee's defense was vulnerable all year… But, to really become a upper-echelon defense (Vols finished 7th in the SEC) Tennessee's freshmen need to be able to help slow down opposing offenses when they try and isolate the interior run game while spreading the field.
Finally, if McKenzie can be the unblockable stud that he was in high school games and all-star settings throughout the country, it will free up Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt from double-teams.
McKenzie can make all the difference in the world without ever cracking the stat sheet just with his sheer size, strength and presence, much the way Robert Nkemdiche has done in his first two seasons at Ole Miss.
The Vols need for him to be really good right away. If he needs some time to develop, they'll be OK with Danny O'Brien, Owen Williams, Kendal Vickers and Shy Tuttle. But if McKenzie is a game-changer, that line could be special.
Linebacker: Darrin Kirkland Jr.
This was a difficult position to pick. If Jalen Reeves-Maybin happened to go down with an injury, that's Tennessee's most consistent, sideline-to-sideline defender it would have to replace.
That would not be a good thing at all.
But with Cortez McDowell and other potential stars at outside linebacker seemingly ready to step in, UT could survive a catastrophic blow such as that.
They won't make it far against quality SEC teams without a playmaking middle linebacker, however, and right now, the Vols simply haven't found one. This spring saw Dillon Bates struggle to come back from an injury, Kenny Bynum plod along as a technician who lacked big-play skills and Gavin Bryant as not yet ready.
All the while, Darrin Kirkland Jr. was rehabbing a torn pectoral muscle and unavailable.
Much like Kahlil McKenzie, it may be unrealistic to expect that Kirkland is a defensive savior considering he's a true freshman, but he definitely has the potential.
At 6'2", 235 pounds, he has the size and lateral quickness to be the missing link in a defense that is in desperate need of a man in the middle. On top of the fact that he has been studying the defense since arriving in Knoxville mid-term, he also has a photographic memory.
That's a really nice addition to an already-loaded skill set.
If Kirkland can come in this fall and steal the starting middle linebacker job, it will give the Vols an extremely athletic second level. It also will ensure that Reeves-Maybin can stay on the weak side where he is used to playing rather than potentially be shifted inside out of necessity.
Having a player with Kirkland's versatility manning the middle and being able to keep Reeves-Maybin home would be worth the miscues that would undoubtedly come with starting a freshman middle linebacker.
So, while Reeves-Maybin may be the defensive MVP, Kirkland's development is every bit as important.
Cornerback: Rashaan Gaulden
Many Tennessee fans grew frustrated with Justin Coleman getting beat deep throughout a four-year career in Knoxville that saw it happen far too many times.
But once he moved toward the middle of the field and took over the nickelback spot in 2014, Coleman thrived. He was an unsung hero to the defensive turnaround a season ago.
Now that he has gone on to try to make an NFL roster, that burden falls on sophomore RaShaan Gaulden, who is expected to step into the starting nickel role in 2015.
Perhaps the most demanding defensive position in coordinator John Jancek's scheme is going to fall on the shoulders of a player who has never started. But Gaulden appeared up to the challenge this spring.
At 6'1", 187 pounds, he really isn't big enough to play safety. So, he's perfect for the nickel spot. In 15 sessions throughout March and April he displayed the same nose for the ball and tackling ability that made UT coaches covet him out of Independence High School in middle Tennessee.
He impressed everybody along the way, according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker:
There are plenty of reasons to like Gaulden, but perhaps the simplest way to put it is this: He’s what coaches call a "football player." For those unfamiliar with that phrase in that context, the short-and-sweet version is that a "football player" is someone you love having on your team, whether it’s on offense, defense or special teams. It's someone who just understands the game, loves the game and always shows that on the field. It's someone who would get picked pretty quickly in a sandlot game.
If Gaulden can hold down that all-important spot, it'll keep the Vols from doing something drastic such as moving cornerback Cameron Sutton over there out of necessity.
Gaulden is capable of being an immediate-impact star and making the transition from special teams weapon a season ago to a defensive star, a la Jalen Reeves-Maybin. UT needs him to.
Safety: LaDarrell McNeil
When LaDarrell McNeil was going through his career resurrection a season ago, the Vols felt his impact all over the field.
Opposing receivers literally felt McNeil's presence as he delivered bone-crushing hit after ball-jarring hit.
Now, the 6'1", 206-pound starting safety needs to guard against a career regression the way he went through between his promising freshman year and a forgettable sophomore season.
The Dallas native had a career-high 76 tackles a season ago, and he made opponents fear coming across the middle. Safety is perhaps UT's deepest position on the entire field, so they'll have able, capable players such as Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry to step in if McNeil falters, but the defense will be better if he doesn't.
Kelly and Berry will get plenty of reps, but with UT having smallish linebackers on the second level, the Vols need an enforcer to strike fear into the hearts of opponents. Everybody always has to be aware of where McNeil is on the field.
No, he doesn't always take the shortest line to a ball-carrier, and yes, he gets torched sometimes because his lack of top-end speed doesn't allow himself to cut off angles very well.
There are more talented players in UT's secondary, but McNeil's role is an important one. If he has another monster year like he did a season ago, the back end of Tennessee's defense will be stout.
Specialist: Nathan Renfro
With Mr. Steady Aaron Medley looking like he could become Mr. Spectacular as a place-kicker, that leaves UT's punter position as the biggest special teams worry for the third consecutive year.
In both the other seasons, tight ends/special teams coach Mark Elder worked magic by turning around the careers of Michael Palardy and Matt Darr during their senior years.
That's why it stands to reason that UT's punting duties will fall on the plate of another senior in 2015: Maryland transfer Nathan Renfro.
The 6'1", 205-pound Brentwood, Tennessee, native is a lifelong Vols fan who played his four years for the Terrapins and is going to transfer to UT for his final season as a graduate student. He averaged nearly 41 yards a punt during three years as a starter for Maryland and should be the favorite to win the job.
Even with former U.S. Army All-American freshman Tommy Townsend heading to Knoxville, it would be in everybody's best interest to let him season for a year while Renfro punted in '15.
But the Vols need him to be steady and solid. If he is, not only would it allow Townsend (the punter of the future) to redshirt, but it would give UT a much-needed weapon. What Palardy did two years ago and what Darr accomplished last year was huge for the team. A player who can flip the field is a commodity.
If Renfro can be that guy for UT, the Vols will be a better team.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.