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    Photo Credit: Will Boling/RTI

    Saturday’s practice was closed to the media, but Tennessee put out a few quick clips via social media.

    It focused on the day of redshirt sophomore defensive end Darrell Taylor, but you can see a few clips of various players as Tennessee had its first day of full pads on Saturday.

      Photo Credit: Will Boling/RTI

      Tennessee takes the practice field Saturday to officially conclude the first week of spring practice, but for media and coverage purposes, one week is already in the books since Saturday is a closed session.

      Covering college football spring practice can feel like wielding a double-edged sword. It’s beneficial in the sense that it can give you an idea of who the leaders and standouts of the next season will be. You can see who is making physical gains, who is poised to step up and get an extended look at some of the younger players who didn’t get as many opportunities the year before. But it can cut you also if you put too much stock in early observations – especially before the pads even go on.

      So with that in mind, here are a few things that stuck out during the first couple of practices for Tennessee over the past week:

      1. The quarterback battle is going to be a fun one

      I know fans want quick answers to questions such as: Who has the edge? When will there be a starter named? Will both quarterbacks stick around? Are any other quarterbacks realistically in the battle? The only one of those questions I can answer at this point is the final one: It is a two-man race right now. That’s been pretty apparent to me. But outside of that, there were some things to like from both Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano in the first couple days of practice, but not a lot of clear answers.

      Guarantano got a lot of the buzz the past few weeks because of his work in California with QB guru George Whitfield Jr., but it’s Dormady who looks physically different – clearly packing on a good deal of muscle even in the past few months since we’ve last seen him.

      In the very limited throwing samples we’ve seen, both were a little rusty to get started, but both also settled in. Dormady has a quick, compact release and a slight advantage in hitting receivers in stride at this point. Guarantano, however, clearly has a big arm and improved accuracy. And though we haven’t seen it much this spring yet, he also has the athleticism edge. I’ve heard some internal buzz that coaches really like what they’ve seen from Guarantano so far. But Dormady also looks good from what we’ve seen. Expect this to take time and, more than anything, know that Tennessee has two really good QBs on the roster and then some decent depth behind them.

      2.  The defensive line looks much different

      The most obvious difference is who isn’t there. Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen, LaTroy Lewis and Dimarya Mixon are among those that are gone, while several key players such as Kendal Vickers, Kyle Phillips and Shy Tuttle are out for the spring. Others are limited in what they can do right now due to injury. That leaves plenty of opportunity for players such as Darrell Taylor, Quay Picou, Alexis Johnson, Jonathan Kongbo and others.

      And even among that group, there are several physical differences. Kongbo has slimmed down and looks to be moving very well. The same can be said for Johnson, who appears to be positioning himself to be in the rotation after a tough first year in Knoxville. Taylor, who came out of high school as a wide receiver, still has a lot of that athleticism, but has also put on enough weight that he can be seriously considered in the defensive end conversation. Picou also looks to have reshaped his body to the point that he can be in competition for a lot of playing time as well.

      How will that all shake out? It’s tough to say at this point because of injuries and overall inexperience in this unit. But Brady Hoke has some intriguing pieces to work with. It’ll be a tough task, however, to replace the lost productivity.

      3. The O-line has options

      Some of the offensive linemen, such as Brett Kendrick, are sitting out or limited this spring, but this has a good chance to be the best offensive line Tennessee’s had since its NFL-quality 2013 bunch. Seven returning players – Kendrick, Drew Richmond, Chance Hall, Jashon Robertson, Jack Jones, Coleman Thomas and Venzell Boulware – have started at least one game in their career. Newcomers Trey Smith and Riley Locklear look more college-ready than last year’s group of freshmen. Smith, especially, has the physique of a third-year starter in the SEC.

      But don’t forget about those second-year linemen either. Marcus Tatum, Ryan Johnson, Nathan Niehaus and converted tight end Devante Brooks are all a year bigger and stronger. There was a heavy emphasis placed on upside and athleticism on those 2016 signees, and while they all need a little more work in the weight room, they all should be ready to at least provide depth and competition come fall.

      The offensive line needs to be more consistent. That’s going to be the challenge for new O-line coach Walt Wells. But credit Butch Jones for restocking a position group that was in really poor shape just a few years ago.

      4. New leaders are emerging

      Confession: I think covering the concept of leadership in college football is nearly impossible. Leadership happens behind closed doors. Who do teammates truly respond to? Who does all the right things?

      All we can go off of is what coaches and players say about leadership and make a few observations in our short amounts of time on the field to try to draw some conclusions in this area. So I don’t pretend to know who the true leaders on a team are, but I have seen some guys try to step up through their actions in the first week. Running back John Kelly is one of them. He’s right near the front of every line and is always talking and seems to bring a lot of energy. I do think based on that, and how the team responded when he played last year, that he is one of the emerging leaders.

      Darrin Kirkland Jr. is one of the guy who spoke to the media in the past week that said he’s taking on that role as well. So those two, plus Todd Kelly Jr. and Jauan Jennings, are some names that have stood out early in this area, and it will be interesting to see how this evolves over the offseason.

      RTI’s spring practice coverage is sponsored by the Nautical Boat Club of Knoxville!

      5. There are concerns outside at receiver and corner

      One big concern I have for this team is the perimeter players – I’m talking the outside wide receivers and the outside corners. Tyler Byrd can be a really good slot receiver and Rashaan Gaulden can be a really good nickel. But the Vols are short on players to play out wide on both sides of the ball.

      Jennings will obviously be a big part of the answer on offense. And there’s zero reason to question his competitiveness or his big-play capability. But can he be a consistent No. 1 threat at receiver? He had Josh Malone to open up opportunities for him last year, and while he made some historically-big plays, Jennings only averaged 3.1 catches per game. And outside of them, I’m just not sure who else will step up at receiver. There’s some talent and some options, but new receiver coach Kevin Beard has a big job in front of him.

      Defensively, Emmanuel Moseley can be penciled in at one of those starting outside corner spots, but is he a true No. 1? That’s tough to say at this point. Baylen Buchanan and Justin Martin both need to step up this spring and offseason and UT needs at least one of the newcomers over the summer to push to be in the two-deep as well. With the effectiveness of the pass rush also in question, the corners could be put on an island for long periods of times. The veteran safeties should help, but the Vols need to see big gains at this spot over the offseason or they’ll be challenged vertically again in 2017.

        Photo Credit: Anne Newman/RTI

        Common sense says that Butch Jones is facing a lot of pressure in 2017.

        A new list from Tom Fornelli on CBSSports.com indicates that Jones’ seat is on fire. Jones is listed as No. 1 on this list of coaches on the hot seat heading into the 2017 after he finished 2016 with a 9-4 record and a Music City Bowl win after facing championship expectations coming into the season.

        Here’s what Fornelli had to say about Jones and the Tennessee situation:

        “In the end, I had to go with Jones ahead of (Notre Dame’s Brian) Kelly on this list. Unlike Kelly, Jones doesn’t have an appearance in a national title game or a Fiesta Bowl on his resume at Tennessee. All Jones really has on his Vols resume at this point are a lot of expectations that his teams have failed to live up to.

        Now, I don’t really hold last season against Jones. Tennessee entered the year as the popular pick to win the SEC East, and for the first half of the season, the Vols were playing like it. Then the injuries came, and they kept coming. After starting the season 5-0, the Vols finished the regular season at 8-4, including a loss to Vanderbilt to finish the regular season.Through four seasons Jones is only 14-18 in conference play, and that’s just not good enough.

        Further complicating matters for Jones is that he’ll have a new boss this year too. Tennessee recently hired John Currie to be its athletic director, and while Currie has spent plenty of time in Knoxville, he has no connection to Jones. If the Vols don’t take a significant step forward in 2017, the next step Jones takes will likely be out the door.”

        A vast majority of Tennessee fans will agree that the Vols didn’t live up to expectations in 2016, but the root issue is widely debated. Some view Tennessee’s injuries as the primary reason the Vols fell short of goals such as winning the SEC East, while others still point the finger at Jones, either saying that they still shouldn’t be an excuse for losing to South Carolina and Vanderbilt down the stretch and/or pointing out that changes Jones made in the strength and conditioning program may have contributed to the injury outbreak.

        Regardless, most UT fans will also agree that Jones is entering a pivotal fifth year. Every player on the roster was signed by him, he’s brought in five new assistant coaches and with him making over $4 million per year, Jones simply can’t afford another year of falling below expectations.

          On paper, Tennessee’s defense looks like it might take a step back in 2017.

          An already shaky unit from 2016 loses key pieces such as Derek Barnett, Cam Sutton, Corey Vereen and Jalen Reeves-Maybin (though he missed a majority of 2016 with an injury). But there’s still talent on that side of the ball, and the Vols will need some of it to step up and lead a group that will need to be more cohesive and confident in 2017 for the Vols to take a step forward in Bob Shoop’s second year in Knoxville.

          “Even though there aren’t a lot of guys who are starters, there are a lot of guys with a lot of  experience,” said linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. “So it’s definitely a closed-meshed group and I feel like this group is really close-knit.”

          Kirkland, who missed five games in 2016 with a high ankle sprain and then returned later in the year and played la less than 100 percent, is one the players Tennessee will lean on this upcoming season.

          A former four-star recruit who found his way into the starting lineup early in his freshman season in 2015, Kirkland is a prototypical inside linebacker in the current landscape of  college football. He’s big enough to play in the middle of the defense and take on blockers in the run game, but quick enough to cover backs and tight ends and get sideline-to-sideline. That burst, however, simply wasn’t there last year as he battled the ankle injury.

          It came back a bit after he was able to get rest before the Music City Bowl against Nebraska, but now the junior linebacker says he’s back to his old form.

          “I was about 100 percent healthy about two weeks before we went on spring break,” he said. “There was a lot of rehab, a lot of recovery with Coach Rock (Gullickson) and our training staff did a great job really just adjusting my workout to make sure I was healthy for spring ball.”

          Now, when Tennessee fans think about the cornerstones of the defense, instead of names like Barnett, Sutton and Reeves-Maybin, it’ll be players such as Kirkland that come to mind.

          “This is my third spring now,” he said. “It’s a lot different now because I’ve always been a good player surrounded by great players, now I’m kind of the Last Mohican now, so I find myself being the main guy – the leader of the defense – and I embrace that role and know I have to bring it another level everyday…We always talk “about next guy up” and “it’s your time,” and it is my time, and I have to embrace that role and be the leader, be the Alpha male.”

            The subject of Tennessee winning championships – or the lack there of – has been a hot topic around Knoxville in the past year.

            The two biggest sports – football and men’s basketball – are in championship droughts. Basketball, which is currently on a three-year postseason hiatus, hasn’t won a regular-season SEC title since 2008 and hasn’t won the SEC Tournament title since 1979. Football, meanwhile, hasn’t won the SEC East since 2007 and hasn’t won an SEC title since 1998, the national championship season.

            Butch Jones drew plenty of headlines when, after Tennessee didn’t win the East in 2016, he declared the seniors “champions of life” and then mentioned looking for “five-star hearts” during recruiting celebrations following National Signing Day.

            Now that it’s died down a bit from that, new Chancellor Beverly Davenport had a comment via Twitter that got some Tennessee fans stirred back up on Saturday:

            For background, Al Roker of NBC is traveling to campuses around the nation to be part of schools setting various Guinness World Records. Tennessee is attempting to make the biggest “Power T” by assembling students and alumni in Neyland Stadium.

            That’s not the huge issue people had, though. The fact that Davenport refers to this as “another Tennessee championship” seemed to trigger plenty of reaction.

              Photo via Atlanta Journal-Constitution

              According to a report from 247Sports, Tennessee has added yet another quality control assistant coach to their staff. And he has quite the track record at both the collegiate and professional level.

              Eric Lews is reportedly the newest addition to an already extremely altered Tennessee coaching staff. Lewis was the defensive backs coach at Georgia State the last two seasons where the Panthers set a school record with 15 interceptions in his first season as defensive backs coach. Lewis was also the defensive coordinator at both Eastern Michigan and Weber State, and he also spent a season as Buffalo’s secondary coach and a season at Louisville as an assistant coaching defensive backs.

              Not only does Lewis have extensive college coaching experience, but he also coached in the NFL for a few seasons as well. Lewis was a defensive quality coach for the Green Bay Packers before joining Louisville in 2008.

              Lewis also played college ball at San Diego State, and he wasn’t too shabby as a player either. Lewis finished with the school’s record for most career pass break-ups at the end of his four years with the Aztecs.

              Walt Wells was hired on in a similar role last season as a quality control assistant on offense, and now he’s been promoted to the Vols’ offensive line coach just a year later. Only time will tell if Lewis will be on the same fast track to promotion as Wells, but Lewis is a solid addition to an already revamped defensive coaching staff.