Some notes and observations from the defensive side of the ball as Tennessee kicked off spring practice at Haslam Field on Tuesday afternoon:
Initial reactions: Right off the bat, you can tell that this side of the ball isn’t short on leadership. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cam Sutton and Brian Randolph were all encouraging their teammates during drills and coaching them on technique and fundamentals when a drill wasn’t done perfectly. We’ve heard Butch Jones mention since his arrival at Tennessee that the goal is for his teams to be player-coached and player-led, as opposed to the coaches doing all of the talking and correcting during practice. The coaches were still very involved – especially defensive line coach Steve Stripling, whose group has been thinned out due to injuries – but it was mostly the voices of the players that one heard booming across the practice field this evening.
Defensive backs: Junior Cam Sutton is clearly the player that makes this group go. He does every drill perfectly and never has to be corrected by a coach or a graduate assistant for lack of effort or improper technique. His teammates at corner and safety really seem to feed off of his energy and approach, which bodes well for the group as spring practice progresses. Sutton is just a pro and a coach’s dream…there really isn’t a better way to describe him.
Outside of Sutton, Brian Randolph and Todd Kelly Jr. stood out as guys who also attack each rep with a purpose. Kelly look absolutely huge The good kind), but still moved well during drills. Emmanuel Moseley still looks like a milk shake or two should be part of his daily routine, but his speed and quickness is undeniable. Newcomer Stephen Griffin is bigger and quicker than I expected but still has a long way to go, as is to be expected for a guy who arrived in December. Rashaan Gaulden looked fluid and much more confident than he did at any time in the fall, and easily won the award for most arm/wrist/leg bands worn by any player on the day. Congrats, Rashaan. Evan Berry took all of his reps at safety today after spending some time at running back during bowl practice.
Linebackers: It comes as no surprise, but Jalen-Reeves Maybin looked really good in his new #21 jersey. He actually got in some private work with John Jancek and the safeties before individual drills began and more than held his own from a speed and quickness standpoint. Dillon Bates was a full-go today and got in a few reps at both inside and outside linebacker. Cortez McDowell also got in a few reps at both positions, but without any full-contact work, it’s really difficult to gauge much from this group.
Defensive line: The fact that so many talented players from this group are currently sidelined gave onlookers a chance to see what newcomers Andrew Butcher and Shy Tuttle could do. Butcher is much quicker, and perhaps a bit leaner than anticipated, but clearly has the speed to get around offensive tackles and disrupt the quarterback. Tuttle has the size and strength to play early at this level, but still has a long way to go from a conditioning standpoint. His good reps were usually sandwiched between two fatigued efforts. Those two actually looked a little bit better than I expected them to today, so credit their teammates and the coaching staff for having them as prepared as they were. There were still a couple of instances where Steve Stripling had to stop and explain technique, drill purpose, fundamentals…etc. but it really was a minimal concern considering it was their first practice.
It’s also worth noting that “Big” Charles Mosley worked exclusively with the defensive line today. There was a lot of speculation regarding Mosley getting his first look along the offensive line, but that was not the case today. There is still a very real possibility that they keep him with the DL during the spring due to the lack of bodies, and then move him to offensive line when fall camp starts, but his size and strength make him an intriguing prospect at defensive tackle.