The Vols won’t be one of the youngest teams in the SEC this season like they were during the 2014 season. But compared to this time last year, Tennessee is dealing with a serious lack of experience across the board.
We recently released our pre-spring depth chart in preparation for the Vols starting spring practices on March 21st, and one thing stands out: There aren’t many returning starters taking the field this spring. The offensive line and specialists are the two units that experienced the least amount of turnover from last season, but almost every other position is dealing with some sort of overhaul one way or the other.
Josh Dobbs, Alvin Kamara/Jalen Hurd, Josh Malone, Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen, Danny O’Brien, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Cam Sutton were all at Tennessee and set to be starters before the start of last spring. Now all of them are gone, and that’s not including other departures such as Preston Williams and Jason Croom as well.
The Vols have all their starting offensive linemen from last year returning. Darrin Kirkland Jr., Todd Kelly Jr., Micah Abernathy, Emmanuel Moseley, and Kendall Vickers all return as well and are projected as starters on the defensive side of the ball. But the rest of the roster is full of question marks.
Right now, Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie are injured and won’t participate in spring drills. That leaves a void at defensive tackle for the spring. Couple that with the Vols having to break in new starters at both defensive end positions, and the defensive line could look drastically different than it did a year ago.
Darrin Kirkland Jr. is probably the most reliable and explosive player on defense as long as he remains healthy. Cortez McDowell is projected to start alongside Kirkland, and McDowell got in more action last season than expected because of injuries at linebacker. McDowell made three starts last year, but he’s far from a known commodity going into his senior season.
The secondary will be reshuffled compared to last year. An influx of freshman talent and another year for younger players such as Nigel Warrior and Marquill Osborne will help competition. Todd Kelly Jr., Micah Abernathy, Emmanuel Moseley, and Rashaan Gaulden head up the secondary, but the depth behind all of them is fairly young. Sophomore Baylen Buchanan may end up starting at the No. 2 corner position.
And all that is just on the defensive side.
John Kelly earned his stripes down the stretch last season as one of Tennessee’s running backs. But now the starting role is all his, and he has only inexperienced talent behind him. Either sophomore Carlin Fils-Aime or freshman Ty Chandler will be the junior’s backup.
Wide receiver and tight end face a similar problem. Junior Jauan Jennings is easily the headliner of the pass catchers, and if redshirt senior Josh Smith can recover well from injury, he will be relied upon as well. Senior tight end Ethan Wolf also brings back a ton of experience.
The rest of the receiving corps, however, is high on hope but low on production so far.
Senior Jakob Johnson is at tight end, but he has yet to make any significant contributions while on the roster. Everyone else at that position is either a sophomore or freshman heading into this year. Same thing at wide receiver. The Vols have a large group of sophomores making up the bulk of the depth, and they added several more freshmen in their 2017 signing class as well.
Then there’s the quarterback battle, of course. None of the quarterbacks vying for the starting job have ever made a collegiate start, and only one, Quinten Dormady, has even seen more than a handful of snaps.
Tennessee’s roster may be full of promise and talented young players, but one thing is for certain: This team looks much different than it did this time last year.