Welcome to our weekly column, The State of the Vols, which is published every Monday morning. We’ll use it as a tool to update you on team news and the latest recruiting info all in one convenient location.
After a long offseason – a very long offseason in fact after Tennessee missed a bowl in 2013 again – the Vols finally got on the field as the complete version of Team 118 for the first time on Friday night.
In producing our practice notes, stories and videos, we’ve tried not to make too many drastic conclusions yet, and we don’t want to do that here either. Shoulder pads didn’t even go on until Sunday afternoon and we won’t get to see full pads until this week, so most of our observations have been purely based on physical appearance, athleticism and some skill work such as throwing and catching.
So what are our overall impressions in those areas so far? We’ll start with the good.
We got a taste of this in the spring, but with all the newcomers now on the field (with the exception of Charles Mosley, who won’t play this year), it’s easy to see why there’s been so much optimism expressed about this group. They’re big, fast and, in several cases, they’re among the most physically impressive players in a given position group. That could certainly be said for the defensive ends, where Derek Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix certainly pass the eye test. Defensive line coach Steve Stripling said they’d been standing out in the early practices and he plans to keep both at end – he has no problem with their 270-pound+ frames because they are athletic enough to play the position.
It’s extremely realistic to think that those two, Dimarya Mixon and Owen Williams will all be newcomers that see the field in 2014 on the defensive line.
The secondary has several newcomers who look the part as well. Todd Kelly and Cortez McDowell look like they’ve been in a college weight program for years. Rashaan Gaulden has great overall length and Elliott and Evan Berry are extremely versatile and athletic.
Elliott has turned a few heads. When the Vols worked on the dime look on Sunday, he was running with the first unit. And though we haven’t seen that from Evan yet, he’s an extremely fluid athlete who we expect to make some noise on special teams and possibly on defense as well very early in his career.
Both the wide receivers and tight ends look night and day better from a physical standpoint – that’s no huge surprise. There rightfully is a lot of buzz about Josh Malone and Von Pearson, but don’t forget the potential jump that Marquez North can make. He was playing mostly on athleticism alone last year with extremely limited experience at the position. Now that he’s learning some of the nuances of the position, expect a large jump there.
Pig Howard has made a smooth return to the field and Josh Smith has received praise from both Butch Jones and receivers coach Zach Azzanni. Don’t forget Vic Wharton either. Azzanni gave glowing reviews about his work ethic over the first three days and he’s a natural in the return game as well. With depth at receiver and Devrin Young available as a veteran return man, it’ll be interesting to see how the coaches handle Wharton this season in particular.
There’s even some cautious optimism in the kicking game. Aaron Medley’s simulated game-winning field goal was a great early sign and, at one point, we counted him making a dozen consecutive field goals. Matt Darr is still battling for consistency, but, when he hits one well, it’s an impressive sight.
Looking for a couple of walk-ons to keep an eye? At the risk of overhyping players too early, we’ll say that UMass transfer walk-on quarterback Mike Wegzyn and Virginia transfer walk-on receiver Adrian Gamble have both done some good things on the practice field. Will either be much of a factor at Tennessee? The odds say probably not. But there’s no such thing as too much depth at any position and adding these players who have FBS experience for basically free was a nice move by this staff.
Now, on to the more concerning things we’ve seen. It’s been somewhat of a rough start for the quarterbacks. That’s not just our opinion. “Nobody in particular has demonstrated [consistent accuracy],” offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said on Sunday afternoon. And that’s been our thought too so far. Yes, there have been some nice-looking throws at times, but not enough of them.
All of the quarterbacks have overthrown even some of the tallest receivers on the roster at times. It’s extremely early, so it’s not fair to make overarching judgments, but we’ve hardly been impressed with that unit overall to this point.
It’s even more difficult to say where that race stands until we see them taking some live reps, but Justin Worley remains the default starter for now and nobody appears to be snatching that away from him right off the bat.
Offensive line is another position that is tough to judge before live action, though it’ll remain a concern until it can prove otherwise. There’s optimism that the interior group – Mack Crowder, Kyler Kerbyson and Marcus Jackson – has enough strength and cohesion from playing together as backups in the past few seasons. But what about the tackles? Any way the position battles fall, it’ll be two players without SEC experience bookending the line.
On the defensive front, one major question is if the D-line can hold up from a size and strength perspective. This will be a more athletic bunch – there’s very little denying that. But the potential starting four of Danny O’Brien, Jordan Williams, Curt Maggitt and Corey Vereen would average under 270 pounds per man.
Finally, team speed looks improved, but it’s still not where Jones wants it. That’ll be something that must be upgraded over time. The addition of the likes of Gaulden, Ev. Berry, Emmanuel Moseley, Josh Malone, Dillon Bates, Derrell Scott and Wharton and several other newcomers certainly helps the issue. But expect the Vols to still be a step behind several opponents this season in that area. That’s just the reality of where the program is right now.
In terms of schedule, Butch Jones moved practice from later at night to 4 p.m. on Monday afternoon. They’ll practice then, Tuesday night at 7:10 p.m., take Wednesday off the practice field, then return Thursday and Friday afternoons before their first two-a-day session on Saturday.
A crazy summer for the Vol basketball program is coming to a close. Head coach Donnie Tyndall married his fiance, Nikki Young, over the weekend in a beach ceremony in Destin, Florida. As you’d expect, he wore some orange during the festivities. But that wasn’t all that happened on the wedding front – Tennessee assistant Adam Howard proposed to his girlfriend, Renee Stutes, over the weekend in Destin.
Things weren’t as rosy for the Vols on the court last week. They lost Brandon Lopez to an ACL injury, which was absolutely huge. He was in line to play a ton of minutes, and probably start at point guard, this season. Tennessee will add point guard Braxton Bonds as a walk-on, as we noted last week, but his ability to play this season is still up in the air. The NCAA is reviewing his case and even if he’s cleared, transitioning from high school to SEC ball as a true freshman at point isn’t easy.
So where does that leave Tennessee? They have multiple combo guards on the roster. Look for Kevin Punter to get the first shot at point guard. Detrick Mostella and Josh Richardson can also help at the position. That’s certainly not an ideal situation, but it’s simply where the Vols are as a program. Not only did the Vols have to turn over two-thirds of their roster and replace their coaching staff, they lost their would-be starting center, Eric McKnight, due to the SEC’s refusal to grant his transfer waiver, and their potential starting point guard, Lopez, due to injury. Tennessee’s tough schedule early in the season will be difficult to manage as the team tries to gel, but by the time SEC play rolls around they should start finding their stride. Patience for Vol fans will definitely be key this season.
Tyndall’s staff is working hard with Vol athletic director Dave Hart to restart a yearly game with Memphis. Hart wants it and Tyndall wants it. Back in May during a Big Orange Caravan appearance, Tyndall spoke on the issue. “Josh (Pastner, Memphis’ head coach) and I are friends, and I think at some point in time we’ll talk about that. I think it’s good for the state, and I think it’s good for Tennessee in regard to just branding the state in basketball and having that natural rivalry that’s so important to high-school and junior-college and middle-school coaches across the state.”
But Memphis is balking at the idea at playing their cross-state rival. Tennessee is dangling football games as a part of any potential deal, and though the Tigers haven’t jumped at the idea, Tennessee is confident they’ll revive the series with Memphis at some point. Memphis is also an area this staff will recruit extremely hard. Most head coaches at Tennessee simply gave up on Memphis and focused on other areas, but Tyndall and Co. are determined dig in and pull prospects from Memphis.
On the recruiting front, 5-10 point guard Dequon Miller, who plays for Motlow State Community College in Tullahoma, TN, is set to attend Tennessee’s elite camp on August 31st. Tennessee will host its top targets that weekend and take them to the Utah State game in what should be the biggest recruiting weekend of Tyndall’s tenure thus far. Miller is rated as a 3-star prospect by 247Sports and has offers from Ole Miss, Valparaiso and several other programs. NC State, Memphis and Missouri tried to sign him after his freshman year, but the NCAA wouldn’t clear him. He’s still receiving interest from those programs, but the Vols currently lead for his services. Tyndall needs to add a both a JUCO and high school point guard in this class, and getting Miller on board early would be big.
Miller averaged over 20.7 points and 7.2 assists for Motlow State last season while shooting 48.6% from the field and 44.1% from three. Those numbers earned him a spot on the NJCAA honorable mention All-American team. He can beat you off the dribble and has a nice midrange game with both a pull-up jumper and running floater. Miller creates separation at the three-point line where his consistent stroke and quick release makes defenders pay. Even more impressive, he’s able to score while distributing the ball effectively and efficiently. He likes to push the ball up the floor and would be a very nice fit for Tyndall’s system.
After a slow week on the recruiting front, the Vols picked up a huge commitment for the 2016 class when 4-star quarterback Austin Kendall committed before practice began on Sunday. Kendall was in town this weekend for his second trip to Knoxville in the last two weeks and he obviously saw enough during his two visits to give the coaching staff his commitment.
In talking with some people at practice, it was clear that everyone in the football complex is extremely confident in Kendall’s ability. The entire practice field was buzzing about the commitment before practice began. They feel like they landed a very good player today.
The outlook on Kendall is that he has the ‘It’ factor. As RTI’s Daniel Lewis stated in his evaluation, he doesn’t wow you with blazing speed or a rifle arm, but he always makes plays when his team needs him. He doesn’t get rattled when things break down and he seems to always make the decision that will benefit his team the most. He maximizes his ability by limiting mistakes.
Although most of the recruiting services have him listed as a pro-style quarterback, the staff considers him as more of a dual threat player. One staff member was overheard describing Kendall as, “Connor Shaw with a better arm.” Kendall has also made plans to help with recruiting other members of the 2016 class. With such a highly touted quarterback already committed, look for the Vols to be in on some very talented skill players early on – as is always the case for teams who snag an early commitment from a top quarterback.
Tennessee seems to have survived Van Jefferson’s recent visit to Ohio State. Jefferson visited the Buckeyes in mid-July and was slated to make his selection last week but has since said he may take some time before committing. Jefferson was very high on Ohio State following that visit, so the fact that he didn’t commit to them has to be seen as good news for Tennessee. The Vol coaches will now have a few more opportunities to get in front of Jefferson and try to get him back to campus for a practice.
Jefferson is absolutely the primary target for Tennessee at wide receiver in the 2015 class as they look for one more guy to compliment Preston Williams. Should the Vols miss out on Jefferson, it isn’t clear if they would shift their focus to a different receiver or use the spot to fill another the position. That will be an interesting recruitment to follow in the coming weeks.
As we have mentioned before, Shy Tuttle is set to make his college decision towards the end of this month. In talking with some various people around the practice field this week, vibes are still very good surrounding Shy. The Vols currently feel very good about where they stand with the talented Tuttle, but the North Carolina native will undoubtedly be hearing from Tarheel coaches and staff members over the coming weeks as they do their best to keep the big defensive tackle in state. The Vols are in good shape but, as is always the case in recruiting, nothing is final until Signing Day.
The Vols also hosted 2015 safety Hunter Dale this weekend and the 3-star prospect from Louisiana appeared to be having a good time when we observed him at practice. Dale is an extremely versatile player in the secondary and has the skill set to project at multiple positions at the collegiate level. He plays free safety for John Curtis High School but looks better suited for strong safety, nickel or dime back once he reaches college.
Dale left without committing, but did tweet that he had made plans to attend a game this fall. Both Kahlil McKenzie and Kyle Oliver tweeted at Dale shortly thereafter, encouraging him to join the class. His will be a recruitment worth following in the coming months.
Look for the coaches to continue to schedule visitors for summer practice, and expect a strong push for the open practice on August 16th. Last year’s open practice drew nearly 40,000 fans to Neyland Stadium in a downpour, so the coaches will likely use that number as a selling point for this summer’s practice – while hoping for better weather.
Stay tuned in to RTI in the coming weeks for full practice coverage and recruiting news. If you aren’t already, be sure to follow @rockytopinsider on Twitter for instant news, notes and analysis.
Have a great week.