Tennessee Football: 8 Sleepers Who Will Play Key Roles for the Vols in 2016
The top end of the Tennessee Volunteers' talent totem pole is awfully impressive, but few teams ever won anything significant because of a few elite players.
You need a good bit of star power, sure. But role players must emerge for coaches to build championship contenders. UT coach Butch Jones knows this, and this past spring was a great opportunity to find out where some of that depth would come from with more than 20 Volunteers injured.
While some guys such as senior defensive tackle Danny O'Brien and junior receiver Josh Smith could go from fringe players to major contributors, they really don't count as "sleepers."
To fit that category, a player has to come from virtually nowhere, either in regard to a lack of playing time in the past or as a player who could break out with an extended opportunity.
The way Jones has recruited, there are plenty of options for the Vols. Even one holdover from the Derek Dooley era could blossom.
Last year, the Vols enjoyed surprising seasons from walk-on punter Trevor Daniel and junior nickelback Malik Foreman, who both emerged as serious weapons for UT by the end of the season.
This year, two underclassmen—redshirt freshman Quart'e Sapp and JUCO transfer receiver Jeff George—blew up in spring practice and are candidates to make some noise. A few upperclassmen may get in the mix, too.
Let's take a look at eight Vols "sleepers" who could wake up and shake up the depth chart for Tennessee in 2016.
Kyle Phillips, Sophomore Defensive End
With all the talented pass-rushers Tennessee can throw at you, it's easy to forget about Kyle Phillips.
After all, he missed much of his freshman season a year ago because of injury, and he missed this spring as he recovered from shoulder surgery. When he gets healthy it will be on the former stud prospect to live up to his massive expectations.
At 6'4", 259 pounds, Phillips played some snaps inside a season ago as UT coaches experimented with his jumbo body type growing into a defensive tackle. This season, it's expected that Phillips will move back outside to stay.
That's where he showed out in 2015's U.S. Army All-American Bowl, dominating anybody who tried to block him before pledging to the Vols in front of a national television audience.
Coming out of Hillsboro High School in Nashville a couple of cycles ago, Phillips was a high 4-star prospect, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. However, he was a 5-star in the website's regular rankings. He was highly regarded across the board by recruiting gurus who believed he'd be great in college.
That hasn't happened yet, but it's still early. Phillips' new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who recruited him while at Penn State, mentioned to GoVols247's Wes Rucker that Phillips is one of the players he believes will boost his D.
I look out there and see the D-line, and I see Kyle Phillips, Derek Barnett, I see Kendal Vickers, I see Shy Tuttle, and I go, 'Jeez.' I mean, that's a pretty good group. Then you think about all of a sudden adding (Jonathan) Kongbo and you add Corey Vereen, who's practiced minimally this spring. Then you go, 'Wow.'
When those guys are out there, it's gonna look a lot different.
Phillips has as much physical talent as any defender on UT's roster. If he shakes off the rust from his injury-riddled past, he'll be a stud for the Vols.
Jeff George, Junior Wide Receiver
Spring practice doesn't make you a star.
But George's spring-ending Orange and White Game showcase made a lot of Tennessee fans get a little excited about the 6'6" player's ability, especially in the red zone.
The Leavenworth, Kansas, product was a target for a lot of college teams because of his height, but his surprising wiggle may get him on the field a little quicker than usual. George has sneaky athleticism, and you don't recruit JUCO players to watch and learn on the sideline.
Tennessee believes George can be a player who will help quarterback Joshua Dobbs right away, and though he's a little on the slim side (190 lbs) and needs to add a few pounds in the weight room, a guy with his size will pull down a lot of 50-50 balls.
He proved that when he went up against UT sophomore defensive back Darrell Miller in the spring game and came down with the touchdown catch. That could be a sign of things to come.
The Vols have a lot of receiving talent, but much of it has gone untapped in recent years. So important reps are there for the taking. Also, UT got a bit smaller in its receiving corps with the recent recruiting class, so George's height is an asset the Vols will covet at times.
Only Preston Williams (6'4", 209 lbs) and Jauan Jennings (6'3", 201 lbs) have a lot of size, so having a tree like George to deploy is a luxury.
George hasn't proven anything on the highest level of college football, so if he emerges this fall, he'd fit perfectly in the "sleeper" category. But his size makes him a good gamble to log some grabs, and hopefully for the Vols, some of them will carry six points with them.
LaTroy Lewis, RS Senior Defensive End
It's been a long, topsy-turvy career for Tennessee redshirt senior LaTroy Lewis, but he's never been mentioned as a defensive difference-maker while on Rocky Top.
Yet even though you didn't see him play a huge amount of snaps last year, the 6'4", 256-pound defensive end was a quiet playmaker. The reason he made this list is he's a silent assassin. You don't realize just what he provides for a defense.
On a team with potential star power all over the defensive front, Lewis won't get any headlines. But he keeps making plays. He participated in all 13 games a season ago, logging five starts. You'd probably be surprised to learn that he finished with 29 tackles, a sack and two tackles for a loss.
The Akron, Ohio, native who was recruited by Dooley has carved out a nice career. He seems to always step onto the field with a fresh-legged bounce, and he can get after the quarterback. He's also sturdy against the rush.
Most importantly, Lewis works hard the entire time he's on the field. That's why he won this spring's "63" award, which goes to the player who hustles the most.
"I think LaTroy has been the warrior of our group this spring," Tennessee defensive line coach Steve Stripling told SEC Country's Dave Hooker. "He's taken almost every rep."
Lewis is never going to be the flashiest player on the field, and with Barnett, Phillips, Kongbo, Vereen, Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie and others on that line, he won't be the guy everybody talks about. But he'll make plays because he always has. He'll post numbers because that's what he does.
Jones will put Lewis on the field in certain situations—including a few starts, maybe—and he'll be solid every time he's out there. This sleeper is a good candidate to make a few more big plays in '16.
Quart'e Sapp, RS Freshman Outside Linebacker
Another spring superstar whose performance could translate when the real reps start is Sapp, a former stud 4-star prospect who was a force on special teams early last season before an injury cost him most of the year.
The 6'2", 214-pound outside linebacker is like a wild horse on the field, roaming everywhere and getting there fast. However, he remains a bit unharnessed, as he simply hasn't had enough on-field snaps to fully know what he's doing.
That was remedied somewhat when Jalen Reeves-Maybin missed much of this spring with a shoulder injury. Though the Vols' emotional senior leader is expected back before the start of the season, he may not be 100 percent early.
That could mean Sapp gets on the field a little quicker than expected at the weak-side linebacker spot as UT rests JRM for the heat of the season. Yes, Sapp must battle Cortez McDowell for reps, but there was a lot of buzz surrounding him this spring, and he showed out in the spring game.
Jones raved about him, per Rucker, following the spring game despite acknowledging he isn't quite there yet.
It's been fun to watch, just to see him take steps every day, and he made a lot of plays out there today. He's still got to get better, still got to improve, still got to work on just becoming a linebacker with all the small details. But just seeing him grow has been fun.
He's got a long way to go, but he's definitely made a lot of progress.
The expectations may be tempered, but Sapp's ceiling is high. With a strong few months in the weight room, he could command immediate playing time in instances where UT eschews the nickelback for traditional 4-3 sets.
This is a player whose spring success will wind up being a harbinger of things to come rather than a one-month wonder.
Micah Abernathy, Sophomore Safety
One of the jewels of Tennessee's 2015 recruiting class was 4-star cornerback Micah Abernathy, a 6'0", 193-pound Atlanta-area prospect with a historic last name and a standout game.
It turns out the grandson of civil rights activist and Martin Luther King Jr.'s close friend Ralph David Abernathy has the ability to keep his family's famous name in the spotlight because of his football ability.
Abernathy played some at nickelback as a true freshman, but he spent most of the spring at safety, where he'll almost certainly factor into the 2016 rotation for the Vols. He's a huge reason for the excitement at the position.
"I said it the other day: Safety, which is maybe initially perceived as a position of weakness when you lose (Brian) Randolph and (LaDarrell) McNeil, it could be a position of strength," Shoop told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan.
Right now, it looks like Todd Kelly Jr. and Rashaan Gaulden are going to be tough to knock out of the starting lineup on the back level. Evan Berry and Stephen Griffin are two other players who will almost certainly factor into the rotation.
When you throw in elite prospect Nigel Warrior, the safety position is stacked indeed.
But the coaches love Abernathy. He started at points throughout the spring, and it wouldn't be out of the ordinary to see him doing that during the season. He has that ability.
Abernathy wasn't just standing on the sideline and clapping his hands this spring. He was in there mixing it up, and while he'll most likely be a force on special teams, he should also see plenty of defensive snaps.
When he gets out there, he's athletic enough to make plays and versatile enough to provide depth at several different spots.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Abernathy break out and command an opportunity to play a ton.
Jakob Johnson, Junior Tight End
One of the players Tennessee fans were most excited about in Jones' first full recruiting class was Jacksonville, Florida, linebacker and Germany native Jakob Johnson.
Not only was he a huge linebacker who packed a punch when he arrived, but he also seemed to have natural leadership skills. Knoxville television station WVLT tweeted that Johnson was considered an "alpha male" by Jones just weeks after he arrived on campus.
But that doesn't always translate onto the field, and Johnson's career hasn't been easy.
After earning a start in Tennessee's 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl victory, it became painfully obvious that his lateral quickness was going to be lacking in the center of the Vols' speed-based defense. So when he went through last spring quietly and it became obvious Darrin Kirkland Jr. was the future of the position, Johnson moved.
Now, he starts the second part of his career as a tight end. As expected, he's tackled the position change with fervor, and he finds himself on the cusp of playing time.
Ethan Wolf is entrenched as the starter, and redshirt senior Jason Croom could revolutionize the position for the Vols as a pass-catching force in the seam. But Johnson is rugged, tough and a terrific blocker, and because of that, he'll carve out a role on this team.
If it's possible to be a "sleeper" in the statistics category but still be a vital part of the program, Johnson fills that category. It's expected that he'll play a important role, especially in run-blocking scenarios, which is what the bulk of Tennessee's offense demands.
Johnson must work on his hands, and he may be the farthest reach on this list to make some serious noise, but you almost expect a player with his physical ability to emerge at some point in his career. It may just be this season.
Venzell Boulware, RS Freshman Offensive Guard
Late in last year's recruiting season when Ohio State and Georgia came storming down the stretch to try to steal Venzell Boulware from Tennessee's clutches, you knew the Vols had a player.
Now, it looks like they've found a force on the offensive line for years to come.
The redshirt freshman may not start this season thanks to the experience and ability of Jashon Robertson and Dylan Wiesman, but he'll get plenty of important reps. If left tackle Drew Richmond falters and the Vols elect to shift one of their guards outside, Boulware should find himself in the starting rotation.
He's one snap away from being a starter. Right now, he's one of the first two linemen off the sideline along with the loser of the Chance Hall-Brett Kendrick battle, and that isn't a bad spot to be in considering Wiesman is out of eligibility following this year.
Everybody wants to talk about Richmond's massive ability, but the other redshirt freshman offensive lineman's upside is just as big.
As they battled through frustrating redshirt seasons last year, Boulware and Richmond decided to stay back in Knoxville rather than travel with the team to work out and focus on getting better. This spring, with Robertson out, the duo teamed up on the left side of the line.
After a couple of frustrating seasons to start Don Mahoney's tenure as offensive line coach, last year was strong. This year, the Vols should be deeper and better at the position. Mahoney is thrilled with how far the line has come, as he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown.
It's a great situation to be in, and the guys are aware that (it's) at all spots. From the tackle spots to the guards to even at center, guys are going to have a great summer because of the level of competition at some of those spots.
That's a situation we've been trying to build since we got here, and we feel like we're getting to that point where we're building the depth that we need to play as physical and play the style of play that we want to (with) the demands of this conference.
Boulware is a building block who'll help fortify that line for years to come. His name will be called plenty this year, and he's a guy who could wind up as this year's Hall, a player who maybe wasn't expected to start but you just can't keep off the field.
Quay Picou, Sophomore Defensive Tackle
When the Buford, Georgia, duo of Quay Picou and Austin Smith committed to Tennessee during the '15 recruiting cycle, most of the buzz surrounded Smith's upside.
He was a jumbo, fast linebacker who had a big offer sheet, and Picou was another nice player who happened to come along in the package deal with his buddy. It turns out the 6'1", 266-pound defensive tackle may play a bigger role even quicker than his teammate.
Picou provides a nice change of pace in the interior of Tennessee's line, a versatile, quick athlete who can get after the passer on third downs and is building up enough strength to be depended upon in any situation.
A season ago, he was in desperate need of a redshirt year, but an injury to Tuttle put him on the field before he was ready. While he didn't make much noise while out there, he shook off some cobwebs and got some college action that will serve him well in '16 and beyond.
The Vols have some potential stars lined up at DT such as Tuttle and McKenzie. Vickers and O'Brien will provide veteran, experienced depth and be solid rotation guys.
Beyond that, there's a void, and as anybody who's spent any time around the SEC will tell you, it's tough making it through an entire conference season with just four defensive tackles.
That's why Picou is important. He needs to give Tennessee 15-20 snaps per game at the very least, and he has the measurables to provide some impact when he's in there. The Vols will need him to do so at a thin position.
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.