Tennessee is coming off one of its most disappointing seasons in recent memory, and heading into spring practice, which begins Tuesday, it has many more questions than it had a year ago.
Key players such as linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, running back Alvin Kamara, defensive end Derek Barnett and cornerback Cameron Sutton are gone. So is running back Jalen Hurd, who left at midseason last year.
On paper, the Vols don’t look as good as they did going into 2016. UT also has a rebuilt coaching staff. But there is hope that among some that chemistry could be better this season. It had better be if Vols hope to stave off the critics.
The three biggest position battles
1. Quarterback: For all of his shortcomings, Josh Dobbs was a leader and helped provide stability despite his occasional errant passes. The Vols hope to upgrade at the position with junior Quinten Dormady, who has shown in-game flashes, or redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano, who has created plenty of chatter with his playmaking in practice. Sophomore Sheriron Jones was highly recruited but seems to be trailing his counterparts.
2. Secondary: The Vols have to replace Sutton, who overcame a bevy of injuries to become one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC. Fortunately, UT has depth. Seniors Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley have battled at the cornerback position opposite Sutton, but neither really locked that position down. With Sutton gone, they could start together. There’s also a chance sophomore Marquill Osborne could land a starting role. He probably has the most ability of the trio. Todd Kelly Jr. figures to be one starter at safety. Then there’s a logjam for the other starting safety spot. Senior Evan Berry seems a likely selection. But sophomore Nigel Warrior is worth keeping an eye on.
3. Running back: Most think the Vols will take a step back at running back — and that might be the case. The Vols lost Hurd and Kamara, the top two leading rushers last season. But junior John Kelly and sophomore Carlin Fils-Aime have shown the kind of speed that may be a better fit for UT’s offense. This competition may not be decided until fall practice, when highly touted freshman Ty Chandler arrives on campus.
The three strongest positions
Middle linebacker: Junior Darrin Kirkland Jr. probably is the best overall talent on UT’s roster. He started 10 games as a freshman and would have started every game last season if not for a high ankle sprain. Still, Kirkland started six games and finished the season strong. He’s a great player to build a defense around.
Offensive line: It’s been a long time since UT’s offensive line was considered a strength; it should be now. The Vols have six offensive linemen who have played significant minutes. They also have a nice crop of underclassmen who have logged playing time. While they may not be road graders, the Vols have made it a point to sign lean, athletic offensive linemen recently. Will that work in UT’s spread offense? It’s about time to find out.
Defensive line: This is a group rated on potential, not production. Junior Kendal Vickers is the most experienced; he’s started 25 games over the past two seasons. The Vols now need some of their recruiting blue-chippers to step up, like junior tackles Shy Tuttle and Reggie McKenzie. Junior end Kyle Phillips needs to also take a big step during the offseason. Touted junior end Jonathan Kongbo didn’t do much last season after transferring from a junior college, and he also needs to take a big step.
Offensive newcomer to watch
QB Jarrett Guarantano: Guarantano was lauded for his playmaking ability during practice, but the stakes have been ramped up with Dobbs gone. It certainly seems as if the battle to replace Dobbs is a Guarantano-Quinten Dormady battle. It seems likely the competition continues into fall camp, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of spring practice for Guarantano (or Dormady, as we’ll examine in a bit).
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