Before beginning fall practice this week, Tennessee hosted its in house media day Sunday. Second year coach Josh Heupel as well as coordinators Tim Banks and Alex Golesh took to the podium to talk to the media while nine players were available to preview the season with the media.
Here are three takeaways from Tennessee football’s media day as it turns its focus to fall practice.
Running Back Depth Quickly Tested
Tennessee’s running back room appeared thin but serviceable coming out of spring practice. The Vols didn’t have a ton of tested bodies returning but starter Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright were back. The duo headlined Tennessee’s running back room after an injury sidelined Tiyon Evans and the South Carolina native transferred to Louisville.
Len’Neth Whitehead was the only returning running back behind the duo and figured to provide needed depth ahead of freshmen Justin Williams-Thomas and Dylan Sampson.
That’s where the bad news struck. Whitehead is out for the season with an “upper body injury” before fall camp even begins.
“Len’Neth will be out for the entire year this year,” Heupel said. “He sustained an upper body injury a couple weeks ago, had season ending surgery.”
The injury exposes Tennessee’s already thin running back room and puts pressure on either Williams-Thomas or Sampson to perform as a freshman. While coaches have talked glowingly about both, going out and consistently proving themselves on the field is never easy for a college freshman.
“With Len’Neth being out the two young guys, there’s plenty of emphasis. There always is,” Heupel said. “Those guys have to grow, understand what we’re doing and be able to compete at a really high level immediately. Justin has had a little bit more time on task having been here mid year. Dylan, really excited about what he’s done. He’s a mature young man who processes things really quickly. Just having the opportunity to be out on the grass with him a little bit. Extremely explosive. Between those two guys here early in training camp they’re going to have to grow really quickly to help us at that position.”
Former Tennessee commit and West Virginia running back transfer Lyn-J Dixon was seen walking around the Anderson Training Center on a visit at the end of media days and could be a potential depth piece.
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Tennessee Still Looking For Answers In Defensive Backfield
Tennessee’s secondary was average at best a season ago. Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson had strong senior seasons that led to them being NFL Draft picks, but the rest of the secondary struggled.
The Vols lost the duo but return just about everyone else from a young defensive back room. Who fits in where and how much better can the returning starters get in one offseason are major questions facing the unit entering fall camp.
Injuries kept Tennessee from answering the first part of that question in the spring and that remains the case entering fall practice according to Tim Banks.
“It’s a lot of moving parts that way,” Banks said of who will play where. “We had guys that played some snaps and were starters from last year— Warren Burrell comes to mind. Obviously, McCollough “Tank” played a ton of reps for us. Flowers has played a ton of reps for us, but the reality of it is, and this may sound like coach speak, just like we did in the spring we moved guys to a bunch of different positions trying to figure out what our best combination of guys is that we can put out there on the field.”
There’s an abundance of questions about the back end of Tennessee’s defense including what the role of transfers Wesley Walker and Andre Turrentine will be. However, Banks did offer up a pair of insights ahead of fall practice.
The second year defensive coordinator said Christian Charles will start the fall at corner after playing safety his freshman season and offered some high praise for Brandon Turnage.
“He is one of those combo guys, very similar to Christian Charles,” Banks said of Turnage. “He has the ability to play corner, we also think he has the toughness and the awareness to play inside. He will get his opportunities, whether it’s at STAR, corner, maybe inside just depending on how everything shakes out. He is one of those guys you just love having on the team. He is very positive, he is obviously a very good athlete. We’re going to have a hard time keeping him off the field.
Like nearly everyone in the secondary, both players are subject to move positions throughout fall camp.
Tennessee isn’t rushing to make any major decisions about its secondary entering fall practice, but that doesn’t mean they’re content with where they’re at.
“There’s always an urgency,” Banks said.
Squirrel White Hype Continues
Squirrel White was a lowly rated recruit out of Alabama’s Clay-Chalkville High School when he committed to Tennessee in June of 2021. White’s hype began to grow when Auburn and Georgia pushed hard for the speedster late in the recruiting cycle.
White stuck with Tennessee and the hype machine has been in full gear all offseason. Coaches praised White throughout spring practice — the 5-foot-10 receiver early enrolled in January — and that praise continued Sunday.
Quarterback Hendon Hooker was nearly giddy when discussing what makes the freshman receiver special.
“He’s special,” Hooker said of White. “His stature and his speed is ridiculous. When he has the ball in his hands he’s a playmaker. That’s what this game is made of— playmakers. When you have a guy that has that size and has that speed it’s special.”
White worked at the slot in the spring and is sticking there this fall according to Golesh. The second year offensive coordinator mentioned White along with Jalin Hyatt and Jimmy Calloway as guys competing for snaps in the fall.
“I’m excited to see all three of those guys,” Golesh said. “Jalin had a really, really good spring, Jimmy finished spring really well, and Squirrel was so exciting to see this spring, just because of what his mental makeup is, what his skillset is. Squirrel, in so many ways, is mature beyond his years.”
It will be difficult for White to earn the starting job as a freshman, but he seems poised to make an impact one way or another.