The Tennessee football program's love affair with new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop continued throughout the third week of spring practice, as that side of the ball continued to take strides toward being one of the most talented units in the SEC.
But Alvin Kamara and the Vols offense took some real shots for the first time all spring.
The junior running back ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run in a scrimmage where the offense got the best of the defense consistently for the first time all spring. It was just a sign of things to come for AK and fellow junior Jalen Hurd, who should provide one of the best tandems in all of football.
The UT athletics production department already is getting ready for the hype machine that will be surrounding those two.
That long run is one of the few highlights you'll see out of Tennessee's "Run CMG" duo this spring. After all, the "Chain Moving Gang" can't churn out yards in chunks this fall if they get hurt in April. That fact isn't lost on Tennessee coaches.
"You look in the NFL—I talked with guys from the Seattle Seahawks—and Marshawn Lynch doesn't need to get hit during practice," Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespie told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown. "He's going to be in car wrecks all Sunday 16 Sundays out of the year."
But all Vols fans know (and brag) about Hurd and Kamara. Let's take a look at some positive developments from the past week, the third full week of Tennessee spring practice 2016.
Sophomore defenders taking the next step
Last week was all about headlines revolving around a pair of second-year defensive ends who weren't household names for most Vols fans last year in sophomore Austin Smith and redshirt freshman Darrell Taylor.
A couple of guys you do know about are now beginning to take a step forward toward stardom.
Two of the biggest coups of UT's 2015 recruiting class were middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. and defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie. Kirkland was a budding star last year, and McKenzie began to live up to his lofty status as the season wore down.
This spring, they've been all over the place.
The big hope for UT when Jalen Reeves-Maybin went down with a spring-ending injury was that Kirkland would take over the role of being the unequivocal leader of the defense. He's done that and more.
It's safe to say they're hitting it off.
First, the first-year Tennessee defensive coordinator told GoVols247's Wes Rucker that sitting in the film room with his two star linebackers was "like watching film with 10-year NFL vets." Kirkland reciprocated the love by saying that Shoop had a "beautiful mind."
Those words led to a hilarious tweet from Knoxville News Sentinel reporter Grant Ramey, who routinely owns Twitter with his humor:
It would be massive for Tennessee if Kirkland grew into the kind of player he's capable of being this spring and carried it over into an All-SEC campaign a year after earning freshman all-conference honors.
Speaking of reaching potential, McKenzie was a 5-star prospect coming out of high school in California and is the son of Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie.
So much was expected of him right away—perhaps unfairly so, considering he was ineligible as a senior after transferring and also dealt with a knee injury.
But he's still huge and back to throwing people around this spring. Once he gets his technique down and stays consistent in doing those things that defensive tackles must do to be successful, he's going to be a load to handle.
Even so, coaches know how great he can be, and they aren't cutting him any slack, including defensive line coach Steve Stripling, who told Brown:
Filling the void
The player Tennessee will miss most off the '15 squad isn't longtime emotional leader Curt Maggitt or four-year starting safety Brian Randolph. It won't be strong, burly defensive tackle Owen Williams or departing receiver Von Pearson.
Instead, it'll be left tackle Kyler Kerbyson, a journeyman offensive lineman who played about everywhere you can think of along the front during his five seasons with the Vols.
Though he probably was always better-suited for the interior, the Knoxville native shifted outside as a senior and stabilized the exterior of the left side, protecting Dobbs' blind side.
This year, former highly-recruited lineman Drew Richmond will try to step into those big shoes.
With right tackle Chance Hall hurt this spring, Brett Kendrick is looking good holding down the right side. Richmond is making strides, too, but just because there isn't a ton of depth out there, it doesn't mean UT couldn't wind up moving a guard out there.
Richmond must do well, and so far, he's getting better and better, he told Rucker:
I'm just working on my consistency. It’s an every-day battle. Your mental ability takes you farther than your athletic ability, and I've been learning that. I work every day to continue to work on my mind to go through things with adversity, and just try to condition my mind to be more consistent and finish plays and play up to the standard that we hold ourselves to.
When he shifted over to left tackle, Richmond said everything changed. He even began to favor his left hand in daily routine activities just to get used to it, he told Rucker:
Will all that dedication pay off? It's hard for a freshman to step into such a pivotal role, even a redshirt freshman. But the Vols desperately need somebody to fill the void of Kerbyson. Richmond looks like he may be the answer.
Not only did the highlight happen in Saturday's scrimmage with Kamara's 80-plus-yard touchdown run, but the more important things occurred, too.
You aren't going to get long gains every game, though the Vols will certainly take those when they get them. Situationally, UT needs to be sharper than it was a season ago offensively.
The Vols did some nice things in short-yardage situations, and quarterback Joshua Dobbs showed his competitive drive by scoring a pair of touchdowns. Goal-line drills ultimately helped the offense pull away, and though the passing game reportedly wasn't as sharp in the windy conditions, UT made strides.
According to Brown, coach Butch Jones asked multiple times for "clutch plays" from "clutch players." That's a far cry from previous years when the UT coaches were trying to find guys upon which they could depend.
Now, they know. They just need to see it on a consistent basis. Dobbs told Brown the echoed words aren't anything they don't already know.
[Jones is] saying it a lot, but when you look back at the last five games we've lost over the last two seasons, it's come down to one or two plays that literally have changed the game. We're just looking for guys that are able to embrace the moment, step up when their number's called and go up and make a play when we need them to as an offense and defense.
Apparently, they responded.
Much of camp has been about UT's defense really looking strong despite having injuries all over the field. That speaks to the depth on that side of the ball.
But the offense is winning its share, too. And there was no doubt who came through on Saturday and who gets to keep the Smokey Gray helmets that go to the winners, according to Rocky Top Insider:
Rocky Top roundup
- Everybody is excited about the potential of redshirt senior Jason Croom moving from receiver to tight end. But how has the experiment gone so far? Swimmingly, UT offensive coordinator Mike DeBord told Rucker: "Obviously, he's a guy that can create mismatches, you know? We can work to get him the ball down in the red zone and stuff like that, which we're doing. We're adding things as we go."
- According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, sophomore runner John Kelly had a rushing score and a receiving score in Saturday's scrimmage. As said, UT knows what it has in Hurd and Kamara, but Kelly's emergence this spring is exceptional news for the future.
- Some may assume that the trio of Vols who returned for another season rather than going pro (Kamara, Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton) just didn't get the draft grades they expected. Sutton probably turned down millions, however, and he's a major factor for UT. Shoop is seeing it on a daily basis. "I knew he was good, but I didn't realize he was this good," Shoop told Brown. "He's a pro."
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.