Tennessee takes the practice field on Tuesday for the first time since knocking off Nebraska in the Music City Bowl to wrap up an up-and-down 9-4 campaign in 2016.
After entering spring practice last year with familiar faces at almost every spot, it’s a different situation this year. Tennessee is replacing its quarterback, its two top running backs, its leading receiver and several key pieces on all three levels of the defense.
There will be plenty of opportunities for players to step up over the course of the next month. Here’s a look at several players who haven’t seen the field much, if any, and could be in position to take advantage of some of those opportunities.
1. DT Alexis Johnson
Perhaps no position has been hit with the injury bug as hard as defensive tackle. Shy Tuttle will be out this spring. Kahlil McKenzie and Kendal Vickers are expected to be. at best. limited over the next few weeks. That opens up plenty of opportunity for Johnson, who failed to make any kind of impact in his first year on campus after coming in as a highly-sought after junior college defensive lineman in the 2016 class. Johnson was a standout in bowl practices in December, showing glimpses of the effective player that Tennessee has been looking for. That upside, combined with the opportunity to get plenty of reps this spring, could lead to a breakout performance.
2. LB Daniel Bituli
Tennessee feels great about Darrin Kirkland Jr. at linebacker, but that’s about it. There are plenty of opportunities for young linebackers to step up, and Bituli, a key special teams contributor in 2016, could be in line to have a big spring. He had his most productive game in the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt last year with four tackles, and he could be used in a variety of ways this year such as playing inside or outside linebacker or even coming off the edge in pas-rush situations.. He should see his role on special teams increase as well.
3. WR Marquez Callaway
Callaway didn’t see the field much in 2016. But in his limited opportunities, he made some plays. The most memorable was his 62-yard punt return for a touchdown against Tennessee Tech. He also had a 13-yard reception against South Carolina. And with Josh Malone moving on to the NFL and Preston Williams no longer in the picture, the Vols need another outside receiver to step up opposite of Jauan Jennings. Help is coming this summer in the form of several newcomers, but this spring is all about seeing which of the second-year players can step up.
4. QB Jarrett Guarantano
I’m not ready to take sides in the quarterback competition. I need to see them in pads first. But I do think spring could be a time that Guarantano could shine with his big arm and natural athleticism. It won’t be surprising to see him put together some highlight-reel worthy plays and to create a lot of buzz. Can he handle the whole offense as well, if not better, than Quinten Dormady? That’s the biggest question I have, and it might not be answered until the fall.
5. CB Baylen Buchanan
The Vols need somebody to step up at cornerback after finishing 10th in the league in passing defense last year and with Cam Sutton now heading to the NFL. Buchanan was a fall camp standout last year who got some opportunities in 2016, but ultimately gave up a few too many plays to consistently be on the field. With that experience to fall back on now, and a new coach in Charlton Warren, Buchanan gets another opportunity to show what he can do this spring. His mistakes on the field looked to be correctable, and if he can make a few adjustments, he’ll be right back in the conversation to start in 2017.
6. DE Darrell Taylor
Jonathan Knogbo and Kyle Phillips are the big names to watch at defensive end, but Taylor is a player the coaches really like. He was athletic enough to play wide receiver in high school, and now, after bulking up for a couple years at Tennessee, he’s in position to become a pass-rush specialist for the Vols in 2017 and beyond. With new defensive line coach Brady Hoke needing to replace a pile of production at defensive end, Taylor will be a name to watch in that area.