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.