Tennessee kicks off its spring practice Tuesday with several positions up for grabs following the departures of veteran starters.
The Volunteers lost quarterback Josh Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara, wide receiver Josh Malone, defensive end Derek Barnett, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton, to name a few. But Tennessee returns several key players and top prospects who could shine in expanded roles.
Here’s a look at the position groups whose stock is heading up and heading down as spring football begins.
Quarterback was one of the sure bets for Tennessee over the past two seasons. Following Dobbs’ departure, it has become the biggest mystery of spring practice.
Two-year backup Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano will battle for the starting job. Dormady’s experience in the system gives him an advantage. But many expect Guarantano’s potential as the No. 1 dual-threat prospect in 2015 to help him claim the job by season’s end.
Though it’s easy to call the quarterback position “inconclusive,” it would be disrespectful to assume either quarterback will match Dobbs’ production early.
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John Kelly looked great during his small sample size of work as Tennessee’s starting back. He should continue to find success as the team’s full-time starter. But it’s hard to believe the running back corps will outproduce last season’s tandem, which included future draft pick Alvin Kamara and former rushing leader Jalen Hurd, who left the team in October.
Josh Malone may go down as the most underrated wide receiver in Tennessee history. He quietly led the Vols in receiving yards and ranked third among SEC receivers last season despite playing in a run-heavy offense.
But there is a good chance that the returning receivers will improve with an additional year of experience. Sophomore Tyler Byrd has the potential to be a solid playmaker in an expanded role and fan favorite Jauan Jennings is likely to continue his development coming off a breakout sophomore campaign.
But it will still be difficult to replace Malone, especially with an inexperienced quarterback taking over as a starter.
Tennessee returns three starting seniors – left tackle Brett Kendrick, left guard Jashon Robertson and center Coleman Thomas – as well as two juniors – right guard Jack Jones and right tackle Chance Hall – on its offensive line. The Vols also have five-star freshmen Trey Smith already enrolled, which could improve his chances at earning early playing time.
Derek Barnett declared for the 2017 NFL Draft, and that’s really all you need to know. Barnett broke the school record for sacks held by arguably the greatest defensive end in NFL history, Reggie White.
While Tennessee does have several former blue-chip prospects up front, such as Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie, most of them are battling injuries and will be out this spring.
Injuries were a problem for Tennessee in 2016, especially at linebacker. Darrin Kirkland Jr. has made a successful recovery from a high-ankle sprain late in the 2016 season and should continue his development into a top-tier SEC player. Seniors Elliott Berry and Cortez McDowell could also provide an impact with more playing time in 2017.
While the Vols have a tall task in replacing four-year starter Sutton, the secondary should improve as a unit in 2017. Baylen Buchanan excelled as a true freshman and should continue to shine as a sophomore. Rashaan Gaulden and Emmanuel Moseley continued to improve in 2016 and should be productive this fall. The Vols also could insert sophomore Nigel Warrior, a former four-star prospect, into the lineup at safety after he received minimal playing time as a true freshman.
(You can follow Jason Hall on Twitter @JasonHall1289)
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