KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Butch Jones enters his fifth spring as Tennessee’s coach with no shortage of story lines.
The coaching staff has been overhauled. A record-setting quarterback is gone. A deficient defense must replace its best player.
With that in mind, here are some observations – and a suggestion – heading into Tuesday’s opening day of spring practice Tuesday.
* Jonathan Kongbo will move back to end. He finished last season at tackle, returning an interception for a touchdown. Kongbo is at 260 (down from about 280 at the end of last season) and has been a weight-room warrior. He might be the strongest player on the team and could be ready for a breakout season. UT coaches think he can be an effective edge rusher.
* UT should play receivers Jauan Jennings and Tyler Byrd 10 to 15 snaps per game on defense when needed. Perhaps they won’t be needed against Indiana State in the second game of the season, but they will be against Georgia and Florida and Alabama and LSU and some other teams. Jennings, who played safety on UT’s “Hail Mary” defense, recording an interception, might be a better safety than receiver. Byrd was recruited by many schools as a cornerback. Given UT’s limitations in the secondary, Jennings and Byrd could be helpful. If playing them on defense means taking them off special teams, so be it. And if Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers can play 100 snaps a game, why can’t Jennings and Byrd get more than a dozen snaps on defense?
* Will the defensive staff be better? Most believe Brady Hoke at defensive line and Charlton Warren in the secondary are improvements over Steve Stripling and Willie Martinez, respectively. They need to be for UT to improve on an injury-ravaged defense that statistically was the second-worst in school history.
* Who will win the quarterback battle? Jarrett Guarantano visited quarterback guru George Whitfield in San Diego last week to improve his skills. Quinten Dormady probably went to visit his quarterback guru — his dad, who coaches in Texas. Both have good, accurate arms. Guarantano gets the edge in mobility, which could be the key in the zone-read scheme. For the most part, running quarterbacks have been more effective in Butch Jones’ scheme.
* Will UT be stronger? From all reports, the Vols have made huge strides in the weight room. Jones made a mistake firing Dave Lawson after the 2015 season. Maybe hiring Rock Gullickson, who has 39 years of experience as a strength coach, will correct that error. So far, the reports are positive. We’ve heard most players are stronger, more powerful and more explosive.
* Will the receiving corps be better without Josh Malone? Malone had a breakout season as a junior with 50 catches for 972 yards and 11 touchdowns. He ran a 4.41 at the NFL Scouting Combine to improve his pro stock. Jennings (40 receptions for 580 yards and seven TDs) is the top returner. If Josh Smith can stay healthy (he had offseason groin surgery), he can be productive. Byrd showed flashes with 15 catches for 209 yards. So did Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson. This is a talented group, but young. Can new receivers coach Kevin Beard maximize their skills?
* Can Tennessee overcome a slew of injuries? Tennessee was crippled by injuries last season. At some point, the program must build up enough depth to overcome injuries. That is not the case now. Jones said Monday that Micah Abernathy, Rashaan Gaulden, Brandon Johnson, Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle, Kendal Vickers and Brett Kendrick will miss spring drills. Josh Smith, Austin Smith,Kahlil McKenzie and linebacker Quart’e Sapp are expected to be limited.
(You can follow Jimmy Hyams on Twitter @JimmyHyams)
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