Tennessee Football: 5 Things We Learned About the Volunteers This Spring
The fourth spring under Tennessee football coach Butch Jones is in the books, and the lessons learned are far-reaching for a program possibly on the brink of some big things.
If the Volunteers are going to live up to the massive expectations many national experts placed on their shoulders, they've got to get healthy.
They've also got to be able to fill the voids better than they did a season ago when those injuries occurred. Sure, the setbacks on the offensive line led to profitable future finds in tackle Chance Hall and Jack Jones, among others.
But the Vols felt the sting of losing then-nickelback Rashaan Gaulden before the season when Malik Foreman wasn't ready to step in. As the year progressed, Foreman shone, but he struggled at the onset. The same goes for UT's lack of a middle linebacker until Darrin Kirkland Jr. began to receive most of the snaps.
When Shy Tuttle was lost for the year against Georgia, the Vols really didn't replace him in the rotation.
So, while the 20-plus injuries that befell UT this spring were difficult to deal with, the flip side is it gave several players the opportunity for extended auditions under the coaches' watchful eye. Several young Vols took advantage of the situation.
Over the course of March and April, the Vols found some areas where they will be considerably stronger and deeper than a season ago. Other spots need reinforcements from the 2016 class to get to Knoxville and help right away.
All in all, Tennessee knows more about itself after this spring practice, which is the purpose of it, anyway. Let's take a look at some of the things we learned about the Vols this spring.
The Rebuild Is (Almost) Complete
In years past, if you subtracted 24 players from Tennessee's roster, you'd have a group of guys out there who couldn't play for anybody else in the SEC—especially during the Derek Dooley debacle.
But the Vols were still able to put on a serviceable show for the SEC Network audience without stars such as Derek Barnett, Josh Malone, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and others. Even running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara were limited, but the Vols still did some positive things on both sides of the ball.
That proved how far this program has come under Jones and is a testament to his recruiting.
No Kamara or Hurd? Well, John Kelly showed the future of UT's running back position is on firm footing. Without Malone out there at receiver, JUCO transfer Jeff George showed the propensity to go up and get passes and looked like a potential red-zone weapon.
He impressed Tennessean reporter Matt Slovin in his coming-out party:
Those looking for reason to believe Tennessee's passing game would bounce back this year found it in the junior-college transfer. First, the lanky receiver leaped over defensive back Darrell Miller to haul in a touchdown pass from second-string quarterback Quinten Dormady.
George wasn't finished; during a one-on-one drill he also won a jump ball in the end zone from Marquill Osborne. George is emerging as a powerful red-zone threat. He's a nightmare matchup and exactly the missing piece the Vols need.
With JRM out, redshirt freshman Quart'e Sapp stole the show from his weak-side linebacker position, and senior Corey Vereen did some nice things at defensive end out of Barnett's shadow.
Even without a lot of its star power, the Vols showed they've got more in the reservoir. Safety Todd Kelly Jr. intercepted a deflected pass on the first play of the scrimmage. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs was sharp for the most part, and Preston Williams showed why everybody has been talking about him this spring.
The Vols still need some help at receiver and a few more bodies at defensive tackle and offensive tackle, but they're closer to having SEC-caliber talent everywhere for the first time in a decade.
No Team Can Overcome Losing a Quarter of Its Players to Injury
Just because Tennessee didn't stink up Neyland Stadium during the Orange and White Game doesn't mean the Vols could trot out that same roster of players and hang with Alabama and Florida.
That's why the Vols have to get everybody healthy—and keep them that way—before the rigors of the season begin. Without Barnett edge-rushing opponents to death, JRM swarming all over the field and Malone stretching the field, UT could be average.
For the second spring in a row, injuries decimated Tennessee. Perhaps that's an underlying reason why Dave Lawson, longtime strength and conditioning coach under the Jones regime at several stops, was officially let go this week.
Tennessee spokesman Ryan Robinson told Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Patrick Brown that Lawson was "no longer working in the athletic department" due to a "difference in philosophy." Associate strength coach Michael Szerszen had taken over daily duties with the football program in January.
A troubling rash of shoulder injuries and subsequent surgeries sidelined several Tennessee stars, and there had reached a point in time where something had to be done about the issues. While nobody within the program is stating why Lawson was let go, the injuries speak volumes.
If UT is going to compete at the level its fans, the administration and the money pumped into the program demand, it has to be as close to full strength as possible.
Sure, it's fine to be cautious with players nursing bumps and bruises, but the fact is, a whole lot of valuable Vols lost a bunch of vital practice time this spring. Other players such as Evan Berry, Dillon Bates and Kyle Phillips lost their opportunity to make moves toward important playing time because they were hurt.
You simply can't write off the number of injuries the Vols have endured over the past two years. The Vols need a productive offseason in order to get healthy, get stronger and get back on the field.
Then, they need to stay there.
Young Offensive Weapons Are Promising
You may not hear John Kelly's and Quinten Dormady's names much this fall, but while the coaching staff put the kid gloves on Hurd, Kamara and Dobbs this spring, those two got extended auditions.
They didn't disappoint.
For Kelly, his job will be challenged by players who aren't yet on campus. Carlin Fils-aime, a 4-star prospect, will be thrust into the mix to earn carries following the departures of Hurd and Kamara to the NFL. Tennessee also is heavily recruiting prospects such as Cam Akers, Ty Chandler, Trey Sermon, Chase Hayden and others.
But Kelly looked more than capable of carrying the load. The 5'9", 212-pound sophomore from Oak Park, Michigan, didn't get a lot of opportunities last year, but this spring, he showed a promising burst to the edge mixed with the power to churn out the tough yards.
After finishing with 65 yards on 15 carries in the spring finale, Kelly saw Jones sing his praises.
"John Kelly is going to walk in and expect to play and start," said Jones, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Grant Ramey. "He's just a competitor. That's what we want. It doesn't matter if you’re year one, two, three or four in the program. You're going to compete every single day out. And John does that."
Dormady will have his work cut out for him to replace Dobbs thanks to dual threat Jarrett Guarantano coming in and battling for the job. Sheriron Jones is another player who could emerge. But, just like he did as an early enrollee last year, the strong-armed Texan impressed again.
When you toss in players who will be vital pieces of the '16 Vols right away, such as Williams and left tackle Drew Richmond, there's a lot to like about this next generation of Tennessee talent waiting in the wings.
This season will belong to Hurd, Dobbs and Kamara. But as UT transitions into life without that three-headed monster, it's important to see flashes of what the backups can do.
The past 15 practices proved some of these guys will be ready when their names are called.
Shoop Will Have Plenty of Versatility on Defense
There are still numerous questions about who besides senior standout Cameron Sutton is going to start in Tennessee's defensive backfield.
That's a great thing.
The Vols are unquestionably loaded in the secondary. While Gaulden didn't start the spring as a starter after transitioning from nickelback to safety, he earned his way into that role and made the play of the spring-ending scrimmage when he bolted around the end on a safety blitz and brought down Hurd on 4th-and-goal.
It's a sign of things to come for the vaunted Vols secondary.
Beyond Sutton, UT has lanky junior Justin Martin, Emmanuel Moseley, Darrell Miller and D.J. Henderson at cornerback. This summer will see the Vols bring in Baylen Buchanan for that position, too.
At safety, Gaulden's elite play helped him move into the starting backfield along with junior playmaker Todd Kelly Jr. Micah Abernathy and Stephen Griffin are more than capable of starting, and UT will welcome back special teams dynamo Evan Berry to bolster that position as well.
Nigel Warrior will make things interesting when he gets here, too. He was one of the country's most sought-after safeties.
At nickelback, it's Foreman and true freshman Marquill Osborne, which loads up that position for the present and the future.
And that's just the secondary.
At linebacker, JRM and Kirkland have the potential to be elite. In traditional 4-3 sets, Sapp and Cortez McDowell are capable of lining up on the field and giving Shoop some pass-rushing options. Tennessee is as deep as it has ever been at defensive end with several players who'll be on future NFL rosters.
The middle of that defensive front is still a question mark, but if Tuttle is healthy and Kahlil McKenzie has a strong offseason in the weight room, they'll join Kendal Vickers and Danny O'Brien as a strong foursome.
The aggravated assault charge against Alexis Johnson was reduced to a misdemeanor this week, per Brown, and if he gets back on the field, he and Quay Picou will provide depth on the interior.
There's talent everywhere, and the Vols have a variety of pass-rushers and run-stoppers to give Shoop several different options regarding the type of skill sets he can employ at any given time. If everything falls into place on this side of the ball, the Vols could be special on defense.
That Injection of Receiver Talent Will Be Welcomed
Williams' emergence was the most refreshing storyline of the entire spring for the Vols.
Jones told Brown it was a total transformation for the sophomore receiver that led to the breakout spring, which is huge for the Vols considering he just so happens to be the most physically gifted receiver (and maybe player) on their entire team.
It all started with his mentality and his attitude and inner drive to be the best. He'd be in the training room at 6 a.m. on off days getting treatment and in the cold tub. It's a byproduct of his investment in the receiver position, in the program and in himself. He still has strides that he has to make but his attitude, his mentality—it's been great to see.
George provided some previously discussed spring-game fireworks, too. But, beyond that, UT didn't have a lot of strong spring performers who could keep healthy.
Everybody is excited about Jauan Jennings, whose physicality led to some nice moments during his freshman year. The 6'3", 201-pound sophomore pass-catcher began his UT career as a quarterback, and while he may be best suited for defense, he's an asset on offense who made plays throughout practice.
Junior Josh Smith wasn't healthy for the Orange and White Game, but he's a steady force who has the ability to lead the team in catches. Malone did that last year and is another uber-talented receiver. Redshirt freshman Vincent Perry has ideal speed and wiggle if he can get consistent.
But none of those guys are proven playmakers, which leaves the door open for all those talented receivers the Vols have entering this summer. They need several of them to help change the face and the fortunes of a downtrodden passing game.
Marquez Callaway is a great possibility as he possesses the all-around speed, size and athleticism to play right away. Latrell Williams is a burner who may have some packages because of his next-level speed, and Corey Henderson is a player UT coaches love.
Former NFL star receiver Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson tweeted last week he was working with nephew and UT signee Brandon Johnson, who isn't talked about as much but could be a sleeper. "Tennessee Volunteers will be pleased once he hits the field!!" Johnson tweeted.
Jones spoke throughout spring drills about how the passing game still had a ways to go to be dependable, and UT needs some young stars to step up and help that along. If they do, Tennessee's offense could be championship-caliber.
All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered at CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.