There was a substantial amount of hype and excitement surrounding Tennessee’s re-entry as a presence in the NFL Draft this year after a two-year absence.
But now that the picks are made and projections for how the former Vols will fit in with their new teams have been made, Tennessee fans are left with the reality that there are some massive holes to be filled on the roster in 2017 and beyond.
Here’s a look at who must step up to replace the NFL-bound Vols:
DE Derek Barnett (1st round, No. 14 overall to the Philadelphia Eagles)
You don’t just roll somebody out on the field and replace the program’s all-time sack king. It’ll be a by-committee approach as Bob Shoop and new defensive line coach Brady Hoke look to do the almost impossible in replacing one of the most productive players in school history. Three highly-touted former recruits will be called upon to step up in Barnett’s absence: Jonathan Kongbo, Kyle Phillips and Darrell Taylor.
Kongbo slides out to end after playing some defensive tackle for the depth-depleted Vols last year. He was highly regarded for his ability to get after the quarterback coming out of junior college, and that’s what the Vols need from him in 2017. He’s down to about 260 pounds, so he should have the quickness to bend the edge for the defense, but his overall lack of experience, and his inconsistent streaks from 2016, are a bit concerning. Phillips is another inside-outside player from last season who might focus on end. Injuries have been his issue.
And he missed spring practice because of one this year, leaving his outlook a bit uncertain. That left the door open for Taylor, who was one of the breakout players of the spring, to have a big spring. Coaches and teammates have praised him as one of the most athletic ends on the roster, but he’s extremely green as well.
There’s plenty of talent within this group, but not a lot of proven productivity to replace Barnett.
RB Alvin Kamara (3rd round, No. 67 overall to the New Orleans Saints)
It took entirely too long, but by the end of the 2016 season, Alvin Kamara was finally the man at running back for Tennessee. But even with him taking lead-back responsibilities, sophomore John Kelly was still seeing a heavy workload, and that will only expand for the Michigan native in 2017. In the games he had at least 13 touches, he always had at least 89 yards on the ground. That shows that he can produce when given the opportunity.
And there will be plenty of opportunity for him this season, so much so that it’s fair to call him the only completely known commodity at the position as of this moment. Help is on the way in the form of three freshmen backs – Ty Chandler, Trey Coleman and Timothy Jordan. Chandler, especially, is the one expected to help Kelly out in 2017. Sophomore Carlin Fils-aime, the only scholarship back available in the Orange and White Game, did enough to show that he has some burst, but he’ll have to prove more this fall to take many meaningful carries away from Kelly.
CB Cam Sutton (3rd round, No. 94 overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers)
Tennessee got a taste of life without the senior corner/punt returner last year when he missed six games due to injury. It wasn’t always pretty. Tennessee lost some of its explosiveness in the return game and the secondary struggled to locate deep balls on a consistent basis.
Now that becomes the new full-time reality for the Vols in 2017. Upperclassmen Emmanuel Moseley and Justin Martin should both get opportunities, as will Louisville graduate transfer Shaq Wiggins, who started his career with Georgia. Sophomore Baylen Buchanan and three newcomers – Cheyenne Labruzza, Terrell Bailey and Shawn Shamburger – will also be in the conversation, as will versatile corner Marquill Osborne, who could play nickel or outside corner.
In the return game, senior Josh Smith is the most sure-handed option, but expect Marquez Callaway, Tyler Byrd or another young player to become Tennessee’s go-to option at some point in 2017.
LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin (4th round, No. 124 overall to the Detroit Lions)
After only getting four games out of him as a senior in 2016, Tennessee got an early taste of life without JRM. The Vols never truly settled on a replacement. Cortez McDowell, who battled some injuries of his own, got the majority of the reps, but it was a revolving door that saw Elliott Berry, Colton Jumper and others all get opportunities in place of Reeves-Maybin.
Those two names will be back in the conversation this year and add Quart’e Sapp, another victim of injury last year, into the mix. Sapp brings similar athletic upside to Reeves-Maybin, but doesn’t have enough experience to be counted on at this point. Tennessee won’t have a shortage of options to put on the field, but it’s tough to say who will actually get the starting nod in his place.
WR Josh Malone (4th round, No. 128 overall to the Cincinnati Bengals)
Tennessee’s clear-cut No. 1 receiver moves on, opening up the door for Jauan Jennings to be the top guy now. Jennings might not be as fluid of an athlete as Malone, but he’s tougher and is more than qualified to make the difficult catches in traffic.
That bumps Smith, Byrd, Callaway, Brandon Johnson, Latrell Williams and others up the depth chart, but the burden primarily falls on Jennings to replace Malone.
QB Joshua Dobbs (4th round, No. 135 overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers)
This one is simple. It’s a two-man battle between Jarrett Guarantano and Quinten Dormady. Dormady might have a slight edge coming out of spring since he’s the one that’s seen the field before and he had an impressive 10-for-10 performance in the Orange and White Game. But Guarantano, a former top-ranked dual-threat quarterback, has the tools to overtake the job in fall camp, or perhaps during the season.
In a perfect world, one quarterback will emerge before the opener against Georgia Tech, but the reality is that this competition might drag into the season. There’s also the reality that both might not stick around to see all of 2017 through.
Undrafted free agent:
TE Jason Croom (Bills): Ethan Wolf remains the top tight end, but his brother Eli Wolf, redshirt freshman Austin Pope, senior Jakob Johnson and incoming freshmen James Brown and LaTrell Bumphus will compete to be the second tight end, which was the role Croom filled in 2016.
DEs Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis (Patriots and Raiders): You can see the Barnett description for information about who will compete to start, and look for Deandre Johnson, Ja’Quain Blakely and Ryan Thaxton to be among the players competing to provide depth.
OL Dylan Wiesman (Raiders): Wiesman played center and guard for Tennessee. Coleman Thomas will likely be the full-time center and Jack Jones, Venzell Boulware and Jashon Robertson are among the options at guard.
DB Malik Foreman (Texans): Foreman played nickel and outside corner for the Vols, leaving the Vols thinner in the secondary. Baylen Buchanan and several freshmen mentioned in the Cam Sutton section will likely be the beneficiaries of his departure.