Tennessee’s 15 bowl practices before taking on Northwestern on Jan. 1 serve several purposes. First and foremost, the Vols are looking to prepare for and win the game against the Wildcats – that’s a given for any team from the least-heralded bowl all the way to the playoffs and every postseason game in between.
But this month or so also serves as somewhat of a second training camp – one of three opportunities, along with fall camp and spring practice – to get some young players extended reps, to mix and match, to experiment and get the best possible product on the field for the bowl while best positioning the team for 2016 and beyond in the process.
And with the Joshua Dobbs era ending after 2016, one thing the Vols are able to accomplish is getting a look at some of their future options at the quarterback position. In limited media viewing, we’ve seen both freshman quarterbacks working in with the first or second team. That doesn’t mean that Joshua Dobbs will be on the sidelines during the Outback Bowl – just a chance for the young signal callers to grow through practice experience.
“The reps have been invaluable for [freshmen Sheriron Jones and Quinten Dormady], especially Sheriron Jones just because of him being on the scout team all year,” Butch Jones said over the weekend. “Being able to get him out there and really get him some repetitions and full-speed reps, but also Quinten as well. Quinten continues to get better and better and they continue to push each other and they continue to compete and that’s what you want. I see them making progress.”
Injured players such as WR Vincent Perry, WR Jason Croom, LB Quart’e Sapp, OL Austin Sanders and DB Rashaan Gaulden have also all returned to the practice field in some capacity to get their first reps in months.
And it’s a big month for the redshirt players as well. Butch Jones singled out a pair of highly-regarded recruits for the Vols who didn’t see the field in 2015, but both have a lot of upside heading into 2016.
“[Defensive end] Darrell Taylor is a young man that continues to progress and get better and better,” Jones said. “We have been very encouraged by the growth and development of [offensive tackle] Drew Richmond. These practices have been invaluable for him. The defensive line actually took his stripe off yesterday and I think that’s quite a compliment coming from them because he goes against them every day in scouts. So I see him progressing. All of the youngsters. We are still at a point in our program where all of our youngsters are basically playing, so you have to be careful in how you develop them. I have been pleased in the development of all of them.”
It’s a development process the Vols went without from 2011-13 as they sat at home for the postseason – meaning the players generally left after final exams in December and didn’t return until close to the start of the following semester. Now, for the past two years, a majority of that time is spent practicing, lifting and growing as a team. For a program heading into a big year in 2016 – it’s tough to put a price on that.