State of the Vols: Live from Jacksonville Edition

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    It’s been nearly 1,500 days since the Vols have played in a bowl game. That is now a matter of days from changing as Tennessee has arrived in Jacksonville for final preparations for Friday’s TaxSlayer Bowl against Iowa.

    But the Vols’ time to celebrate their bowl appearance has passed. The focus is on winning the bowl game now, something Tennessee hasn’t done in over 2,500 days (Jan. 1, 2008 against Wisconsin).

    There’s certainly some fun involved too. Tennessee’s had plenty of team bonding since arriving at their resort home-away-from-home at the Marriott at the TPC at Sawgrass, located on the east side of Jacksonville. Sunday night included a trip to the bowling alley and an arcade. Monday night included a welcome seafood buffet from the bowl itself. All has gone well on that front from a maturity standpoint from all indications. Players were told to be back in their rooms by midnight on Sunday night and all were accounted for by 11:30 p.m. – a sign that the team, especially the leadership, is taking this opportunity seriously.

    “We’re going to rely on our coaches, we’re going to rely on our older players, the overall leadership of our football team,” coach Butch Jones said. “They’ve done a great job as of right now of really understanding the purpose of why we’re down here and that’s to enjoy each other, but it’s also to win a football game. It’s all about your preparation and taking care of your body.

    “You have to get your body prepared to play in this type of humidity, this type of heat right now this time of the year. It’s your hydration, it’s your rest, your recovery. It’s all of those things the great players understand, it’s all about your performance and everyone taking great pride in your performance and great pride in your preparation for your performance.”

    Monday afternoon was all about knocking the rust off after a Christmas break, however, as Tennessee was on the field for what Butch Jones called a “thud” practice with helmets, shoulder pads and shorts that included a fair amount of contact. That will be the most physical practice of the week with Jones dialing back the contact a touch as the Vols wrap up practice with another session on Tuesday and then a closed walk-through on Thursday.

    And there’s perhaps no better way to get the process of knocking the rust off started than a visit from Jacksonville resident and Vol legend John Henderson, who spoke to the team on Monday morning and was in attendance to watch them practice at the University of North Florida. Multiple players indicated that Henderson’s passion was evident as he spoke and he addressed the team with some advice about how to carry itself in a bowl setting among other topics.

    Two more players – freshman cornerback D’Andre Payne and sophomore defensive end Jaylen Miller – are no longer with the team, Jones confirmed on Monday. Both are searching form more playing time as neither was very high on the depth chart heading into the postseason. While any attrition at this point will concern fans due to the minor exodus that’s been seen this offseason, these two departures aren’t all that bad or unexpected as neither seemed primed to have a huge impact in the near future. The Vols are also down to approximately 60 scholarship players scheduled to return next year, leaving plenty of room in terms of the 85-player total roster scholarship limit to fill the 2015 signing class as much as possible.

    On the field, perhaps the best news we can report is that quarterback Joshua Dobbs had a great morning on Monday during the open portion of practice. The sophomore looked very comfortable throwing in the warmer Florida air and looks poised to bounce back from a shaky regular-season finale against Vanderbilt. And it should help that receiver Von Pearson looks to be getting back to early-season form as well. For the first time that we’ve seen in open practice, Pearson had no apparatus on his injured ankle and appeared to be moving as well as we’ve seen since he’s been in Knoxville.

    In terms of other injuries, running back Devrin Young and defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry, both role players, are really the only somewhat questionable players for Friday. Both have been practicing and have a chance to play if needed, though expect freshman Evan Berry to retain the starting kickoff return job ahead of Young, the former kickoff returner.

    After some earlier reports of rain, the forecast for Friday’s game looks borderline perfect with a high around 70 and just a 10 percent chance of rain at Jacko


    The Vols received great news last Friday when New Orleans running back Kendall Bussey gave his verbal commitment to Tennessee. Bussey is an extremely talented running back who can do a variety off different things out of the backfield and should find a role in Tennessee’s offense fairly quickly. He has very good quickness and cutting ability, is a solid pass-catcher and has another gear he reaches after breaking into the open field. He won’t be a 20-to-30 carry guy from day one, but he can offer a nice change of pace from the one-two punch of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara.

    While the addition of Bussey was clearly a positive for a team that desperately needs to add depth to a now depleted backfield, his commitment did appear to be the deciding factor in Rocky Reid’s decision to decommit from Tennessee and open up his recruitment. Reid – a Concord, North Carolina native – had been committed to the Vols since April, but after Georgia offered him a scholarship in late-October rumors began to float that his commitment was less than solid.

    The loss of Reid likely means that the coaching staff would still add another running back to the 2015 class if given the opportunity, and, as of now, Wake Forest’s Bryce Love appears to be the most likely candidate.

    Love has recently said that his top two schools are Stanford and Tennessee with a fleet of in-state schools trailing, so if the Vols can sell Love on staying closer to home – and if he doesn’t mind being part of a four-man signing class at the position – then it appears that Love could end up in orange by the time signing day rolls around.

    Another player who looks like he could end up in orange is Aledo, Texas’ Ryan Newsome. Now, Newsome is far from a Vol-lock but the talented receiver recently named the Vols in his top-3 schools along with Texas and UCLA.  It is also worth noting that since announcing his top-3, Newsome hasn’t tweeted anything about Texas or UCLA, but has tweeted about Tennessee, Joshua Dobbs and Kahlil McKenzie on numerous occasions. As of now, very few national recruiting analysts are predicting Newsome to Tennessee, but he will definitely be a player worth watching as we inch closer and closer to signing day.

    On Tuesday, all eyes will be on Nashville’s Ugo Amadi as he appears set to make his decision around lunchtime between LSU and Tennessee. When Amadi decommitted from Ole Miss in mid-december, it appeared that Tennessee had the inside track to land the talented cornerback. But recent rumblings seem to suggest that Amadi will be announcing for LSU tomorrow.

    While losing Amadi would sting, losing his friend and fellow Nashville prospect Kyle Phillips would be a punch in the gut. The two have claimed that they would likely attend the same school, and with LSU gaining more and more steam for Phillips and Amadi, it appears that the Tigers may indeed snag both mid-state prospects in the coming days.

    Another Vol target that the Tigers have taken a liking to in recent weeks is Oklahoma JUCO cornerback Justin Martin. Martin was a teammate of Ugo Amadi for two years at Overton High School in Nashville before attending Northeastern Oklahoma A&M this past season. It appears that LSU is leveraging Amadi for both Kyle Phillips and Justin Martin at this point, and the Vols will have to continue to work on Martin to avoid losing all three to the bayou. Martin plans on visiting both schools before signing day, so the Vols still have another shot to seal the deal when he makes it to campus.

    Finally, with the recent news that Jim Harbaugh has accepted the head coaching position at the University of Michigan, there were more than a few Vol fans that wondered if the Wolverines might try to make a late push to get back in the race with Indianapolis linebacker and current Vol commit Darrin Kirkland Jr.

    While there is little doubt that Michigan would love to get back in the race for Kirkland, the fact that the recruiting dead period doesn’t end until January 14th while classes for the spring semester begin on January 7th would seemingly have Michigan on the outside looking in for Kirkland. Kirkland is an early enrollee for the Vols and has already built very strong relationships with Tennessee’s coaching staff and many of the current commits, so the odds of a last-minute flip seem highly unlikely at this point.

    Also, in case you missed it, you may want to check out what Kahlil McKenzie is doing to the competition at the U.S. Army All-American practices. Needless to say, the Vols will be getting a difference maker when McKenzie arrives in Knoxville this summer. – McKenzie Impresses in San Antonio.


    Hoops coverage will return next week at the conclusion of the football season.