Tennessee Football: Predicting the Starters for Each Volunteers Position in 2016

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2016

Tennessee Football: Predicting the Starters for Each Volunteers Position in 2016

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    Opposing groups of fans loved to mock Tennessee football followers in recent years with the Volunteers' often-empty "wait till next year" refrains.

    Well, next year is coming.

    The hope appears hollow no more; 2016 should be a good year on Rocky Top, and virtually every expert in the nation can't seem to say enough about the Vols' loaded roster next year.

    Following a 9-4 season that ended with a thorough thumping of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, a Top 25 ranking and six consecutive wins, things are looking up in Knoxville. Some way-too-early polls (such as SI.com reporter Colin Becht's) have UT firmly in the top 10.

    "The Vols struggled to close out tight game, a factor in all four of their losses, but they weren't far from a huge breakthrough season," Becht wrote about the Vols, who he ranked eighth. "That may come in 2016 with a more experienced team and proven playmakers all over the field."

    Indeed, Tennessee looks loaded.

    The Vols have gotten nothing but good news since the end of the season, as former 5-star defensive end Kyle Phillips—who was rumored to be transferring, according to VandySports.com—decided to come back. Most importantly, the star trio of Cameron Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Alvin Kamara all elected to forgo the NFL for one more year at UT.

    Those are the biggest recruits that coach Butch Jones could possibly land this cycle. The Vols should be competing for the SEC title in '16, and if they can accomplish that, a potential playoff berth won't be far-fetched.

    All that talent Jones lured to Knoxville will be seasoned, experienced and battle-tested. So, let's take a look at the projected starters on what should be a talent-laden and deep team.

Quarterback

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    Joshua Dobbs

    The first couple of positions on this list are no-doubters and no-brainers, starting with the quarterback spot.

    There's no way, barring injury, that Tennessee's starting quarterback in 2016 will be anybody other than Dobbs.

    The dynamic dual-threat rising senior has all the tools to be a special playmaker, and while he needs plenty of polishing between now and next year, Dobbs has what it takes to lead a good UT team.

    Does he have the makeup to lead a great one? That's going to be the big question between now and then.

    He accounted for 2,962 total yards and 26 touchdowns this past season, taking some huge steps forward in his leadership ability and in seizing the spotlight a few games at vital moments. He also struggled throwing the ball too often, failing to develop into a thrower who could keep defenses honest.

    So, while Dobbs has the ability to win games with his wheels, he also hindered the advancement of the offense at times with his inability to consistently execute the vertical passing game.

    If the Vols are going to win the SEC and set their sights on bigger things, Dobbs has to be better than he was in 2015. Everybody knows it, and he's intelligent and talented enough to close that gap between his current state and becoming a championship quarterback.

    Tennessee has a strong future at the signal-caller position with freshman Quinten Dormady on the roster as well as incoming dual-threat prospect Jarrett Guarantano. 

    But those guys should be content waiting their turn, because next year is Dobbs' team. The Vols will go just as far as he's able to take them.

Running Back

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    Jalen Hurd

    If there's one position where the Vols will be the envy of the nation, it will be running back.

    Tennessee has virtually two starters returning in the 1,000-yard rusher Hurd—who appears primed to break the school's all-time rushing record in '16 as a junior—and the dynamic, do-it-all rising junior Kamara.

    The latter took a long look at the NFL but returned and should see his role increased next year. It would be smart of Jones to use him some in the slot and keep running the swing passes and wheel routes that Kamara turned into big gains this past year.

    As for Hurd, the 242-pound every-down back looks like a rising star. He has the ability to wear down defenses, and he looks his best late in games and really began to come into his own toward the end of the '15 season.

    The added wrinkle in the Outback Bowl of running Hurd out of the offset I-formation warrants a longer look next year, and Hurd can be an even bigger weapon getting downhill at the line of scrimmage sooner.

    So, while Hurd likely will take the first handoff of next year, he and Kamara are both "starters" who will be relied upon depending on game situations. They fed off each other in 2015 and made the Vols one of the nation's best rushing teams, as UT finished with the second-highest rushing total in school history.

    All that talent and all of it returns in '16. That's huge news for UT. 

    When you can run the ball successfully, move the chains and score touchdowns, you're going to be in every single game you play. The Vols were in 2015 thanks largely in part to the running ability of Hurd, Kamara and Dobbs. They'll have that same luxury next year.

Wide Receivers

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    Josh Malone, Preston Williams, Josh Smith

    Perhaps the most puzzling development since the conclusion of the season was junior Vols receiver Marquez North deciding to forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft.

    Following an injury-riddled career and a six-catch, 58-yard junior season, North is gambling on his impressive physical prowess to gain attention from pro teams, and it may wind up paying off for him with some big workouts.

    But it puts Tennessee in a bit of a bind, as the Vols also lost Von Pearson and Johnathon Johnson, who are both out of eligibility. 

    For a receiving corps in need of a jolt of new blood after three disappointing seasons under Jones and receivers coach Zach Azzanni, the turnover may be a good thing.

    Rising junior Malone is one of the most talented receivers in the corps, and though he needs to get much more physical and consistent, he'll almost certainly lock down a starting role. 

    After battling through injuries during his freshman year, Williams will live up to his electric potential, possibly emerging as UT's best pass-catcher and field-stretcher. With his physical ability, size, speed and swagger, Williams is a prime candidate to break out.

    As far as the third starting spot, it's more up in the air. Jauan Jennings has immense ability, and Tennessee is bringing in some good-looking prospects to go along with redshirt Vincent Perry, who'll be a factor in the slot. A lot of those guys will get reps.

    But Smith quietly makes big plays, and though he doesn't look like a star, the rising redshirt junior from Knoxville is steady. He's sure-handed (after a disappointing, drop-filled first season) and perhaps the best route-runner remaining on the team.

    So, while UT's receiver rotation will have plenty of names, a trio of Malone, Williams and Smith would be a good starting point for the starters in 2016.

Tight End

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    Ethan Wolf

    There's really no reason that a player with Wolf's skill set who is the perfect tight end for Jones' system should be entering his junior year with just 46 catches for 513 yards and two touchdowns.

    The 6'6", 245-pound Minster, Ohio, native has been under-utilized a bit so far throughout his career on Rocky Top, but he's going to have a massive junior year.

    With Dobbs' issues consistently throwing the ball downfield, Wolf should be the ideal safety valve. But he has to get better with his in-line blocking as well as fighting off blocks and finding creases in getting open. That said, UT failed to focus on the middle of the field too often in '15, taking Wolf out of the equation.

    Wolf has a NFL future and possesses the potential to register 500 receiving yards in a single season while being a big red-zone threat for Tennessee. But he has to improve, and Tennessee has to do a better job of getting him the ball.

    Redshirt junior receiver Jason Croom may move over to tight end where he could become an O.J. Howard-type weapon at the position. Also, Tennessee loves incoming freshman Austin Pope.

    But the Vols have an asset in Wolf who should be one of the team's biggest offensive weapons. 

    When he makes a play, you see his massive potential with his soft hands, sneaky athleticism and huge size. Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord must design ways to get him the ball in space and let him do the type of things that his idol, former Vol and future Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer Jason Witten, does.

    If they can do that, the Vols will be much better in the passing game than they were in 2015.

Offensive Line

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    LT Chance Hall, LG Jashon Robertson, C Coleman Thomas, RG Dylan Wiesman, RT Drew Richmond

    Losing Kyler Kerbyson is going to be a big blow to the unit that made the biggest turnaround for Tennessee in 2015. After all, it's tough to replace a left tackle who's been a stalwart for the past two seasons.

    But the bottom line is Kerbyson—despite a strong senior season—was playing out of position. Also, the Vols have a few talented players at tackle who are better suited to play out there who must step up to fill the void.

    After a major down year in 2014 and a transitional year where the line overachieved thanks to the addition of longtime NFL offensive line coach DeBord as the offensive coordinator, the Vols should be stout and deep in the trenches for the foreseeable future.

    Anchoring next year's line will be a veteran interior that includes star guard Robertson, All-SEC performer Wiesman at the other guard spot and Thomas at center.

    Once he moved to the spot for good prior to the beginning of the year, Thomas excelled in the middle of the line. He could be an all-conference performer before his career is over.

    Rising sophomore Jack Jones earned a start as a true freshman, and while he just so happens to be mired behind two quality players at his position, he's essentially a third starter at guard who can slide in where needed and even has the ability to play tackle as well.

    Speaking of the edge-guarders, the Vols look to have a potential stud on their hands with Hall. The true freshman was inserted in the Georgia game for injured Brett Kendrick at right tackle and never relinquished the spot down the stretch.

    Hall will stay at right tackle, at least to start spring practice, though he may be best suited to play on the left side due to his athleticism and reach. But former star prospect Richmond will have every opportunity to replace Kerbyson at left tackle coming off a redshirt year.

    The prediction here is that Hall and Richmond wind up swapping sides, but they should be the tackles of the present and future for the Vols. Kendrick will be a solid player who already has starts under his belt at the position.

Defensive Line

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    DE Derek Barnett, DT Kahlil McKenzie, DT Shy Tuttle, DE Corey Vereen

    All-SEC havoc-wreaker Barnett should be a star in what will almost certainly be his final season in college football before taking his talents to the NFL, but how great he will be may wind up being dictated by his supporting cast.

    Battling injuries and dealing with the loss of Curt Maggitt to his own injury, Barnett got off to a slow start in '15. Though he was his regular, ol' unblockable self down the stretch, the Vols need the other linemen to excel to take some of the pressure off their pass-rushing star.

    That onus will likely fall on Corey Vereen. Nobody expects him to be as awesome as Maggitt was, but Vereen enjoyed a bit of a career resurgence in a relief appearance in the final half of the season. When he came on, Barnett was able to get healthy and terrorize quarterbacks.

    As talented as Kyle Phillips is, he's expected to miss spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery. While Phillips will be firmly in the two-deep, Vereen's experience and the fact that he'll be on the field more should help him hold off Phillips for the other starting end spot to open the season.

    On the interior, McKenzie wasn't the immediate-impact stud many thought he'd be coming out of a banner high school career, but a full offseason in the weight room will enable him to realize his immense potential. The run-stuffer he can be would fortify the center of UT's defense.

    Nobody besides maybe Malik Foreman and Darrin Kirkland Jr. were making the strides that Tuttle was a season ago when a dirty block in the Georgia game cost him the rest of a promising freshman year. He'll miss spring, and while that will be valuable missed reps, he'll still be too good to keep off the field.

    Toss in Kendal Vickers as a third starter who has plenty of experience and JUCO tackle Alexis Johnson, and UT's defensive line rotation looks much stronger than a season ago. Youngsters such as Darrell Taylor and Andrew Butcher and veteran LaTroy Lewis will provide quality reps at end, too.

Linebackers

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    OLB Jalen Reeves-Maybin (weak side), MLB Darrin Kirkland Jr., OLB Austin Smith (strong side)

    Tennessee's defense received a gargantuan boost when tackles leader and emotional pace-setter Reeves-Maybin decided to exhaust his eligibility before moving on to the NFL. 

    In new coordinator Bob Shoop's attack-based defense, Reeves-Maybin should thrive as a pass-rushing, sideline-to-sideline tackling machine.

    Also, it helps that he'll have another year to tutor one of the true rising stars in the SEC in Kirkland.

    Once he made it through the rocky first few games of his first year, the freshman from Indianapolis was a key part of UT's defensive resurgence. Not only does he possess the ability to get after the quarterback, but he can also get everybody lined up where they need to be and is fine in pass coverage as well.

    That's two positions where the Vols should be strong in 2016.

    In situations where Tennessee employs three linebackers, it'll be interesting to see how Shoop's scheme differs from former coordinator John Jancek's. If UT continues to use a hybrid linebacker like Maggitt, Smith should fill that role well.

    If the Vols want to be a little more athletic on the second level, Cortez McDowell, Dillon Bates or Quart'e Sapp could wind up getting some important reps in what will essentially be a wide-open audition under Shoop. That'll be one of the biggest battles on the whole team this spring.

    Still, with Smith having some experience and with his size and skill set, he should be the one who emerges as the third starter in traditional 4-3 sets.

Defensive Backs

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    CB Cameron Sutton, CB Justin Martin, NB Malik Foreman, S Todd Kelly Jr., S Rashaan Gaulden

    Tennessee's secondary got tons better when Sutton chose to return for his senior season, and if he shows the form he displayed during his first two seasons on Rocky Top, defensive backs could be a team strength again.

    But there is a lot of talent and just as much uncertainty around Sutton.

    Gone are longtime starting safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil. Though UT may upgrade the athleticism, the team will have to give up some knowledge of the defense.

    The playmaking Kelly almost certainly will hammer down one of those starting spots, and while Evan Berry has the talent and potential to win the other spot, Foreman's growth at nickelback could allow the versatile Gaulden to move to the back level.

    Gaulden was set to start at nickel this past year before a foot injury in late camp cost him the whole season. Despite a disastrous start to the year for Foreman, it's hard to state how much he improved as the year progressed. 

    By season's end, Foreman was one of UT's most consistent defenders. With his speed and confidence, he's a sleeper who could wind up being a pro if he continues to develop. That would have been unheard of if you were scouting him in the '15 Florida game, for instance.

    If Foreman has a good offseason, Tennessee may have to keep him on the field. Gaulden is too good to keep off it, too, so Berry may wind up being the third safety much like Kelly was this year.

    At the other corner spot opposite Sutton, it'll be a battle between Martin, Emmanuel Moseley and probably incoming talented freshman Marquill Osborne. Though Osborne's skill set will be formidable, Martin is a freak of nature. When he figures it out, his upside is huge.

    Tennessee has a ton of talent on the back end, but it lost a lot of experience off this year's roster. It'll have to translate that athleticism into production.

Special Teams

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    P Trevor Daniel, K Aaron Medley, KR Berry, PR Sutton/Kamara

    Tennessee's strong kicking game should be even stronger in '16 as Daniel and Medley will be entering their junior seasons coming off strong years.

    Medley turned his season around after missing three massive kicks against Alabama, and he wound up being dependable down the stretch. The Vols need him to be more consistent, but the big-legged kicker has all-conference potential.

    Only Alabama's JK Scott was better punting than Daniel in '15, which was unexpected considering he was a walk-on who didn't even earn a scholarship until late in the season. Instead of being a worry, Daniel was a weapon. Early in the year, he was a field-flipping machine.

    Not only was Tennessee's kicking game solid this past year, but the Vols featured the best returners in all of college football. All of them come back this year, too.

    Berry was the most electrifying kick returner in all of college football, a threat to go to the end zone any time he fielded a kick. He'll be somebody whom teams kick away from throughout the season. 

    As for Sutton and Kamara, they're interchangeable. Sutton is shiftier back there receiving punts, and Kamara is the big-play threat. Both have returned punts for scores, and they are among the best in the country at doing it.

    There was plenty room for improvement on offense and defense for the Vols in 2015, but the special teams were close to spectacular. If they can get the same results next year, it'll be a quality season again.

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

    Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.