Position-by-Position Preview of Tennessee's 2016 Roster
From skill-position players to potential forces of nature along both the offensive and defensive fronts, Tennessee's 2016 football roster is loaded with reasons for Volunteers fans to poke their chests out just a little farther this offseason.
Of course, UT must prove it on the field in a season riddled with expectations, but if the game was played on paper, Tennessee would jump off the page.
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara may have their names on the marquee, but defensive back Cameron Sutton, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, defensive end Derek Barnett and others will do plenty more than play a supporting role.
It's a roster filled with top-shelf talent, young players brimming with potential and role players who are more than capable of being difference-makers. Guys like defensive end Corey Vereen, safety Rashaan Gaulden and center Coleman Thomas may not see their name much in previews, but they are great players.
Vols coach Butch Jones has recruited plenty more like them, too. But just because the college world is buzzing about UT doesn't mean folks around the program are forgetting about the sting.
"The expectations are always very high internally," Jones said on a recent teleconference, per Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter David Paschall, "but the expectations placed on this team—Team 120—are a direct correlation to the success at the end of the year of Team 119. This year’s team has not accomplished anything. To me, it's all noise."
There sure is a lot of it. You can't read any college football preview without seeing mentions of the Vols. So, what's all the chatter about? Let's take a look at the position-by-position breakdown of the roster to see why folks on Rocky Top are excited.
The team is going to go as far as quarterback Joshua Dobbs takes it.
There's too much talent around him and the line in front of him is too strong for the senior from Alpharetta, Georgia, not to have a quality season running the ball. But he's got to get more consistent and accurate throwing the ball. The Vols' downfield passing game is the team's biggest question mark.
If they can get the ball in the hands of the receivers, loosen up defenses determined to stack the box against Hurd and Kamara and provide more of a balance, the Vols are going to be nearly impossible to stop. After all, teams geared up to stop the run a season ago, and it didn't work.
Dobbs has immense talent, an NFL frame at 6'3", 207 pounds and the type of skill set that coaches on the next level look for when you want to take a gamble on a signal-caller in the middle rounds. But a standout senior season could make Dobbs the league's next Dak Prescott.
Life after football looks successful regardless for the aerospace engineering major, but getting to the NFL is obviously an attainable aspiration. For now, the Vols want him to lead them to the promised land and an SEC title.
Behind him, Tennessee has a strong stable of future arms as well. Sophomore Quinten Dormady showed some flashes in a reserve role a season ago, but he has to get a lot more consistent before he's guaranteed the future reins. The strong-armed Texan has sneaky athleticism and is a safe bet to be the '16 backup.
Redshirt freshman California signal-caller Sheriron Jones experienced an odyssey this offseason that saw him transfer to Colorado, transfer back to Tennessee and then participate in spring practice as a Vol. It'll be interesting to see how his future fits into the puzzle.
Finally, everybody's excited about the potential of Jarrett Guarantano—the nation's top-ranked dual-threat quarterback who spurned Ohio State and his father's alma mater, Rutgers, to sign with UT as Butch Jones' quarterback of the future.
He'll have to battle it out to earn that right.
A season ago, they combined for 448, and you've got to think Tennessee's offense will be even better this season. When you throw in that there's just not a ton of depth behind them, that spells a huge workload for the junior duo.
The Vols had better showcase them while they're on Rocky Top. After Kamara flirted with the NFL following his redshirt sophomore season, both players are expected to head to the NFL after this season if they have the healthy, productive seasons most expect.
After amassing more than 1,200 rushing yards a season ago, Hurd is on some lists as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate, finally emerging a bit from the shadows of Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb and former Alabama running back Derrick Henry.
It's about time. All Hurd is lined up to do is become the all-time leading rusher at a storied program known for producing star running backs. He doesn't talk to the media all that much, but he offered a glimpse into his massive expectations of himself recently in an interview with ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg:
"I just want to reach my maximum potential," Hurd said, "which I think is pretty damn high."
The convivial Kamara has a lofty ceiling, too. As a do-it-all back, he is this year's Kenyan Drake without the injury history. The former Alabama and JUCO transfer can catch balls out of the backfield, is a special teams force and is one of the few Vols who can take plays to the house once he gets in space.
He's also become a favorite of everybody around the locker room.
Sophomore John Kelly got a heavy workload this spring and looks like he could be the future at the position, but that's really it for Tennessee. The Vols haven't built a ton of depth at the position yet, so they can't afford any injuries or it gets real thin, thanks to the season-ending injury to Joe Young.
Freshman former 4-star Carlin Fils-aime is a player who could find himself thrust into action early if the Vols sustain an injury or two.
Everybody is probably sick of hearing about Tennessee's wide receivers' lack of production over the Butch Jones era.
But the only way for the Vols pass-catchers to do that is to go out and shut up the doubters with productivity.
Talent isn't an issue, even if experience is. Actually, that may not be a bad thing that UT cycled out some of the players who always had a lot of potential but never really proved their stardom on the field such as Marquez North and Von Pearson.
It's time to usher in the new wave of Tennessee receivers.
That starts with sophomore Preston Williams, who absolutely blew up this spring, becoming as much of a household name around the SEC as anybody can in March and April. It seemed every day there was a new story about just how good the 6'4" specimen from Lovejoy, Georgia, looked on the field.
Each day, Jones had higher praise, such as what he told GoVols247's Wes Rucker toward the end of spring drills:
Big spring, remarkable progress, and 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 treatments and getting in the cold tub at 6 a.m. It's a byproduct of his investment—his investment in the receiver position, in the program, and himself. He still has strides that he has to make in terms of route running and catching the football and high-pointing and all that, but his attitude, his mentality, it's been great to see.
Toss in junior Josh Malone, who led the team in receiving a year ago, and that's a nice little combination for the Vols to build a receiving corps that gets bragged on a little more than in previous seasons.
Junior Josh Smith, sophomore Jauan Jennings and redshirt freshman Vincent Perry all will be factors on offense, and the freshman group of Tyler Byrd, Marquez Callaway, Brandon Johnson and Latrell Williams all have high upsides.
JUCO transfer Jeff George was a nice addition this spring who looks like he could be a red-zone weapon as well. So the Vols have a lot of new faces and varying skill sets that could wind up producing a change of direction for the receiving corps.
That would be huge news for a passing game in need of a jolt.
There's no reason for junior Ethan Wolf not to become a major factor in Tennessee's passing game.
For the past two seasons, there have been flashes that make those around the program think it's close. But then some blocking lapses or just Dobbs' failure to get him the ball for a few games in a row will make the 6'6", 245-pound tight end an afterthought once again.
This may just be Wolf's year to turn a corner. If so, the Vols are going to be really good on offense.
The Minster, Ohio, native will certainly be getting pushed harder than in recent years.
Converted wide receiver and rising redshirt senior Jason Croom moved to the position and impressed everybody this spring. He's a matchup nightmare who will see the field in a lot of situations but mostly as a pass-catching target who can attack the seam and beat linebackers in man coverage.
That's a great one-two punch for new tight ends coach Larry Scott to be able to deploy against the SEC. But the Vols have a lot more talent than even those two.
Walk-on Eli Wolf (Ethan's brother) showed this spring that he isn't too far away from being able to help the Vols. Junior Jakob Johnson has spent his career flipping from linebacker to defensive end to tight end, but he appears to have found a home as a blocking tight end who can slip out and catch a pass from time to time.
H-back Joe Stocstill will continue to have a role in the offense, primarily in blocking situations.
And UT went out and signed two players at the position with high upsides. Local tight end Austin Pope spurned offers from a lot of top programs to stay home and play with the Vols. Though Devante Brooks is coming off two devastating knee injuries, he's getting healthy and could be a factor for UT in a couple of years.
The Vols have a bunch of talent at tight end, but it all will revolve around Wolf and Croom this year. If those guys produce, they'll be utilized by Dobbs time and time again.
The job offensive line coach Don Mahoney and DeBord have done with the offensive line in the past couple of seasons is largely overlooked.
After inheriting a group of solid players that included NFL first-round pick Ja'Wuan James as well as NFL players Zach Fulton and James Stone, as well as Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, whose pro career was derailed by bad knees, the Vols struggled in Jones' first year. But that group wasn't suited for the zone-blocking scheme.
The next year, few coaches would have succeeded with a makeshift line that included a walk-on starting at left tackle, a true freshman tackle and a bunch of first-year starters who'd rarely played college snaps because of the veterans ahead of them.
Last year, it all came together.
All that group did was pave the way for Hurd, Kamara and Dobbs to rack up the second-highest rushing total in school history. The Vols line needs to improve in its pass protection, but there's reason to believe the offensive front could be a team strength in '16.
Leading the way is All-SEC guard Dylan Wiesman and star staples guard Jashon Robertson and center Coleman Thomas. All three of those guys are capable of being first-team all-league players. Then, there's sophomore Chance Hall, who'll try to rally from an injury that cost him the spring to live up to his massive potential.
Drew Richmond is the wild card as a redshirt freshman currently slated to start at left tackle, barring losing the position to somebody such as Brett Kendrick or potentially a guard who'll slide down to play on the outside.
That's a stellar starting five, but the Vols aren't done there. Guards Venzell Boulware and Jack Jones could start for a lot of teams in the SEC. Redshirt sophomore Charles Mosley is still a work in progress but could be a nice player for the Vols down the road. Austin Sanders could provide snaps at guard, too.
Even so, there are a lot of quality players outfitting that front for Tennessee. It's crazy to think just how far the unit has come in the past couple of seasons.
One of the biggest question marks on Tennessee's roster last year was who was going to man the middle of the defense? This year, it's who's going to man the middle of the defensive front.
There are candidates galore, but the depth simply isn't there yet for the Vols.
Super sophomores Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie look like safe bets to be difference-makers if they can stay healthy and get their conditioning to the point where they can be relied upon for the majority of the snaps.
Tuttle has special ability, but a nasty leg injury suffered on a dirty block against Georgia a season ago has kept him off the field for months, and he isn't expected to be available until July or August at the earliest.
While O'Brien's junior season was forgettable after a short suspension and a lack of production, he's provided quality snaps in the past. Vickers isn't going to wow anybody with his ability, but with two years remaining, he's got the potential to wind up a nice college player.
Sophomore Quay Picou had to burn his redshirt a season ago after Tuttle's injury, and he could add an explosive change-of-pace to the Vols from the interior, especially in pass-rushing situations.
If JUCO transfer Alexis Johnson returns from his indefinite suspension, he'll be in the mix as well, but there are no guarantees there.
The end situation is much, much better. That's one spot where the Vols are absolutely loaded. Led by junior havoc-wreaker Derek Barnett, UT can throw a lot of weapons at quarterbacks off the edge.
Corey Vereen, LaTroy Lewis and Austin Smith have proved they can be viable rotation guys, and Smith's upside is huge as a sophomore. Toss in the ability of former 4-star Kyle Phillips and redshirt freshman Darrell Taylor, and the Vols are loaded on the exterior.
That's not even to mention Jonathan Kongbo, a signing-day coup who has exploded to more than 270 pounds and offers the flexibility to play either inside or out. His explosion off the edge will be tough to keep him from end, where he may be a similar player to former Alabama lineman Jarran Reed.
Dimarya Mixon and Andrew Butcher may get lost in the shuffle, but those guys could produce as well. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is going to have the ability to do a lot of mixing and matching along that front.
That's huge news for the Vols.
Tennessee's linebacking corps isn't as loaded as the Vols would like for it to be, but it's definitely top-heavy on talent, nonetheless.
The Vols have a massive 2017 recruiting big board at linebacker that includes a lot of top names across the country to try to build that depth, but this year, UT needs to stay healthy at the position.
It isn't off to a great start with the shoulder injury of Jalen Reeves-Maybin this spring costing him a ton of action. While there's nothing left for the defensive and emotional leader to prove on the field, the Vols can't afford for him to miss any action once the games start.
JRM turned down the NFL because he had unfinished business remaining at UT.
"Reeves-Maybin, who led UT with 105 tackles and 14 (tackles for a loss), bypassed the chance to enter the NFL draft because he had much more he wanted to accomplish in Knoxville," Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman wrote. "And Jones said he told his teammates very specifically that."
One of those teammates who'll be a sidekick for JRM and take the horns of the defense once he leaves is sophomore middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., who went from not even starting at the beginning of the year to being the team's second-leading tackler and an irreplaceable part of the defense.
Beyond those two, there are a lot of unknowns. Quart'e Sapp was one of the stars of the spring game and looks like the future of the second level of UT's defense, but he still doesn't really know how to harness all that speed and energy.
Cortez McDowell and Dillon Bates are former high-profile recruits who've not really been able to live up to their big expectations so far at UT. There's still plenty of time for both, but this year's lack of depth is a prime opportunity for one or both to assert himself as a player who deserves meaningful snaps.
UT has a couple of promising incoming freshmen in Daniel Bituli and Ja'Quain Blakely. The former looks like he could be Kirkland's heir apparent, and Blakely's speed is an asset that will be huge for Tennessee's defense in a couple of years.
The other position on Shoop's defense that won't have any trouble fielding a group with an immense amount of physical talent is the secondary.
A season ago, the group got better as the year progressed, but it was still a bit of a disappointment after everything that was expected. There are more options and more depth on this year's roster, and coach Willie Martinez shouldn't have a hard time keeping healthy battles.
One player who won't have to fight much for his spot is senior cornerback Cameron Sutton, who came back to Knoxville for his final season rather than become what would have likely been a high NFL draft pick. That's massive news for a UT secondary that needed a leader.
Beyond him, there's still plenty of potential. Justin Martin began to blossom late last season, though he didn't have the greatest spring practice. He'll probably battle Emmanuel Moseley for the other corner spot opposite Sutton.
At nickelback, senior Malik Foreman has a firm grasp on the job after ending the year as one of UT's top defensive playmakers down the stretch. He was a liability early on when he was thrust into the starting role following a Rashaan Gaulden injury, but he grew as the year went on.
Backing him up will be true freshman Marquill Osborne, who excited everybody with his spring practice after being Tennessee's only freshman early enrollee.
At safety, the Vols have a ton of depth and explosive players. Exiting spring, Gaulden and junior Todd Kelly Jr. were the starters, and that's a duo who could do big things on the back end of UT's defense.
They'd better, because of the glut of talent behind them. Junior All-American kick returner Evan Berry and sophomore Micah Abernathy will be in the mix for key reps, and Stephen Griffin could fill that role, too.
The wild card is Nigel Warrior, one of the most talented players in all of the nation coming out of high school who elected to follow in the footsteps of former UT All-American safety and his father, Dale Carter. Warrior is too talented to keep off the field.
Baylen Buchanan, the son of former Atlanta Falcons All-Pro "Big Play" Ray Buchanan, also is coming in to Knoxville to battle this summer.
With that group and no premiere quarterbacks on UT's schedule, it could be a big year for Tennessee's defensive backfield.
Last but not least, the Vols special teams were dynamite a season ago, and everybody returns. So that's really good news for a team expecting to compete for a championship.
One of the team's biggest surprises a season ago was punter Trevor Daniel. The walk-on won the job in preseason drills and wound up being a weapon for the Vols throughout the year. He earned his scholarship and now should battle Alabama's JK Scott for the top punter in the SEC.
Junior kicker Aaron Medley had some forgettable moments a season ago (remember Alabama?), but he rebounded to have a solid season. The Lewisburg, Tennessee, native has one of the biggest legs in the league, and if he can improve his consistency, he can hit from anywhere inside 55 yards.
If Daniel falters, former U.S. Army All-American Tommy Townsend is waiting patiently his turn behind him. Medley's backup is a little more uncertain, but it could be Ootewah, Tennessee, walk-on Laszlo Toser.
There are few teams nationally who boasts the kind of kick-return talent as the Vols. Evan Berry was an All-American kick returner a season ago, and he was a threat to take it to the house any time he touched the ball.
At punt returner, Kamara and Sutton each returned punts for touchdowns. Teams got to where they'd purposefully kick away from the Vols every time they could.
You can't be bad in special teams or on the coverage units and expect to win big, and that's been one place that's been very strong under Jones' regime. The Vols expect it to be again in 2016.
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.