The start of the semester for Tennessee led to the official end of training camp for the Vols on Tuesday and a two-day break from the practice field. So while a lot of the preseason work is in the books, there are still a couple weeks remaining of pre-season practice before the Vols take on Bowling Green in 16 days.
Here are five things we’ve learned about this team so far and five questions that still linger.
What We’ve Learned
1. Receiver looks more like a strength than a weakness: Injuries, absences and overall inconsistencies made the receiver position a question mark over the offseason. And while Zach Azzanni’s bunch will have to prove it on the field, this group looks more like a positive than a negative at this point. A lot of that has to be credited to the return of Von Pearson. But also credit newcomers Vincent Perry and converted QB Jauan Jennings, who give the Vols more depth and flexibility at the position. Josh Malone’s had a good camp so far, so have Pig Howard, Josh Smith, Johnathon Johnson and others. Marquez North and Jason Croom have been banged up, but are expected to be good to go Week 1. The Vols have a lot of depth and options – and that’s even without any official word on the eligibility of Preston Williams at this point.
2. The defensive line can be nasty: The old – Derek Barnett, Curt Maggitt, Owen Williams, Danny O’Brien, Kendal Vickers, Corey Veren and others – give the Vols a nice talent base on the defensive line. The new addition, including Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie and Kyle Phillips, make it potentially nasty. The Vols are deeper and more talented at this spot than they have been in years. Look for more of a rotation and less of guys taking 70 snaps a game at this spot.
3. There’s a solid plan in place at quarterback: Joshua Dobbs continues to have a strong camp and is light years ahead of where he was this time last fall. The Vols knew he would be the starter, and haven’t wavered from that plan at all. But there’s also a good plan in place behind him with mature-beyond-his-year Quinten Dormady claiming the No. 2 spot and Sheriron Jones, who has a lot of upside, ready behind him at No. 3. History says the Vols will need multiple quarterbacks, and while this team certainly takes a hit if Dobbs goes down, there’s a good plan in place.
4. The secondary is a quiet strength of the team: It may not get the buzz that the defensive line does, but many teams around the nation would covet a two-deep with players such as Cam Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley, Rashaan Gaulden, Brian Randolph, LaDarrell McNeil, Todd Kelly Jr., Evan Berry, Malik Foreman, Justin Martin and Micah Abernathy. This group is significantly faster than it was when Butch Jones took over in Knoxville, and it has depth now too. Like the defensive line, it’s a nice blend of veterans and younger players.
5. The overall size, speed and depth has improved: Admittedly, after starting my writing career in the Dooley era and watching fallout from that, maybe I’m not the best judge of what an SEC football team should look like. But I can say this – the Vols have the most complete looking roster in at least the past several years. Questions still remain (I’ll get to that next), but almost every position has multiple players at it that look and move like a high-level SEC athlete should. Teams from the past few years have had a couple units that looked the part, but this team looks more complete.
1. Can the offensive line be serviceable?: It’s been the burning question for months, and we don’t have a ton of answers yet. Some of the hype for the defensive line has come at the expense of the offensive line as some individuals have been run over and run around by their counterparts on the defensive side of the ball in drills. There’s certainly more depth in this group than last year, and the four scholarship newcomers all look the part. With the injury to Marcus Jackson, one or two of them may be called upon for major playing time as the Vols look for answers from a group that was, in many areas, the worst in the SEC last year.
2. Who is the middle linebacker?: Defensive coordinator John Jancek said earlier in the week that they have it down to three candidates to start – Darrin Kirkland Jr., Colton Jumper and Kenny Bynum. Regardless, he wants to use multiple players, but the Vols want to have at least one guy they can peg as the starter and get a lot of quality snaps from. Bynum, the most veteran of the competitors, is the presumed favorite until somebody can take the job away from him. Enough good has been said about Kirkland, though, to believe he’s a very viable option.
3. Can Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara stay healthy?: So far, so good for the most part. They’ve been a little nicked up in camp, but holding them out has been more of a precautionary move than anything. The coaching staff feels very confident in this duo and knows what it can do, so they haven’t been pushed into too much contact this camp. But when the live bullets start flying, how much can this duo take? Behind Dobbs, perhaps no two players’ health is more important on the roster. Tennessee needs these two to be as healthy as possible all season, because, while some of the guys behind them have done some good things in camp, the Tennessee running game will live and die by this “Thunder and Lightning” duo.
4. Who is the punter? This is another question that’s been lingering all offseason that there is very little answer for right now. It’s been a three-man competition between freshman Tommy Townsend, transfer Nathan Renfro and walk-on Trevor Daniel. I thought Daniel and Townsend had the best nights at the open practice, but this is a competition that is still ongoing and that we haven’t seen very much of. Butch Jones has said that all three have the ability, he’s just looking for the most consistency when he picks his starter for Bowling Green.
5. What is Mike DeBord’s impact on this offense?: With limited media access and very few actual 11-on-11 plays run live in front of us this camp, this may not be able to be answered until the Vols open the season, or possibly even not until Week 2 against Oklahoma. Butch Jones brought his old mentor DeBord, a former offensive coordinator at Michigan and head coach at Central Michigan on to “enhance” the offense after some inconsistencies on that side of the ball last year. Will DeBord help this offense take the next step? Will the Vols have more of a physical edge in the run game? Can he mask some of the deficiencies on the offensive line? It remains to be seen.