Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin had an eventful 2014: In February, thousands of Tennessee fans signed an online petition seeking to replace him with former coach Bruce Pearl; in March, he led a resurgent Vols team on a magical run into the NCAA Tournament, ending in a closely fought loss to Michigan in the Sweet 16; and, in April, he flirted with leaving for Marquette, only to stay at Tennessee with a contract extension and a raise.
Meanwhile, over at Haslam Field, football coach Butch Jones was taking advantage of the (relative) lack of media attention to begin molding the heralded but young talent he's brought on campus1 and the remains of the Dooley-era recruiting classes.2 Spring practice unfolded behind closed doors, so tomorrow's Orange and White game will be the first chance for the public to see how the newest edition of Tennessee football, aka Team 118 in Jones' parlance, will line up.
Here's your projected lineup and guide to the results of spring practice.
Color key: YELLOW indicates an early enrollee, BLUE is a walk-on. Players who missed the entirety of spring practice are not listed (Brendan Downs, Pig Howard, etc.).
Offensive Depth Chart (White)
The completely rebuilt offensive line features five new starters, anchored by former starter and 2013 redshirt Marcus Jackson at left guard. Along with Jackson, the interior of the line will feature Mack Crowder at center after backing up NFL hopeful James Stone, and Kyler Kerbyson at right guard, having moved inside from right tackle. Their backups are also relatively set, with Austin Sanders, early enrollee Ray Raulerson, and Dylan Wiesman entrenched behind the starters.
At the outside positions, early enrollee freshman Coleman Thomas looks the part, and seems to have locked down the starting right tackle spot, although he will need to continue to work on conditioning to survive the long grind of the conference schedule. Your first surprise is found at left tackle, where fifth year redshirt senior Jacob Gilliam has moved ahead of touted JUCO transfer Dontavis Blair. Although Blair is the more physically imposing player, he lacks the meanness and competitive streak desired by line coach Don Mahoney. Coach Butch Jones called out Blair over the PA system after one particularly disappointing series, and made a point of throwing Blair into Circle-of-Life and other one-on-one drills against high motor defensive players.
Receivers and Backs
The skill position players are what you'd expect, with Marquez North and Jason Croom out wide and Von Pearson mostly in the slot. With the injuries to returning tight ends A.J. Branisel and Brendan Downs, early enrollees Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm are 1 and 1A on the depth chart. Look to see whether or not offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian uses more two tight end sets to offset the lack of experience on the offensive line. At running back, the Vols will again forgo the use of a fullback, with senior Marlin Lane splitting carries with highly touted early enrollee Jalen Hurd.
The staff appears to want to turn the keys over to redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson, who has a penchant for making momentum changing plays, both for good (touchdowns) and ill (turnovers and sacks). Senior Justin Worley has improved, but remains an unexciting albeit reliable option. Ferguson and Worley have taken the majority of the first team snaps in the past few practices, with both Josh Dobbs and Nathan Peterman seemingly well behind the those two.
Defensive Depth Chart (Orange)
The defensive line presented here will change dramatically when the six (6!) remaining defensive line recruits in the 2013 class step onto campus sometime during the summer. For now, your starting line will likely feature Corey Vereen at the primary pass rushing defensive end position (LEO), with Danny O'Brien and early enrollee JUCO transfer Owen Williams at defensive tackle (last year the staff distinguished between a nose tackle and a regular DT, but we don't know if that will hold true), and senior Jordan Williams returns at the other defensive end position.
At linebacker, the only real question is whether or not outside linebacker and force of nature Curt Maggitt will occasionally play as a hybrid rush end, as the staff experimented with moving him closer to the line of scrimmage in spring practice. With the influx of promising defensive line talent during the summer, expect Maggitt to continue making plays at his preferred outside linebacker position.3 A.J. Johnson returns for his senior season at middle linebacker, where he hopes to improve his draft stock by taking advantage of the increased talent surrounding him. One of the players he'll be counting on is sophomore and former special teams terror Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who brings the most speed to the linebacking unit since Raynoch Thompson. Early enrollee and "Alpha Male" (copyright Butch Jones) Jakob Johnson will provide valuable depth behind the starters as he learns the nuances of the position after only a single year of high school football following his move from Germany. For the remaining linebackers, including one-time Wildcat quarterback Justin King and oft-injured Kenny Bynum, the time to make an impression on the coaching staff is now, as a talented group of recruits will join the program during the summer.
The defensive backfield returns all four of last year's starters,although not everyone will play the same position. At free safety, junior LaDarrell McNeil took every snap with first team during spring practice, and will be the starter come fall practice. Senior safety Brian Randolph will also return to the starting lineup once he returns from injury, but spent the entirety of the spring doing rehab with the strength and conditioning staff. In his place, sophomore Devaun Swafford4 took the majority of the snaps at strong safety backed up by Lemond Johnson and Gerald Orta. If for some reason Randolph wasn't ready by the fall, strong safety would become a fall practice battle to watch between the on campus trio and incoming freshmen.
At cornerback, the Tennessee coaching staff deserves accolades for their recruiting and evaluation, as early enrollee freshman Emmanuel Moseley appears to have won the starting position across from Freshman All American Cam Sutton. Last year's starter, much maligned senior Justin Coleman, has been moved to the nickel (fifth defensive back in some formations), where he displaced incumbent and former walk-on running back JaRon Toney. Early enrollee D'Andre Payne has struggled to pick up the scheme, and has practiced at a number of positions in the defensive backfield.
1. Namely, the fourteen early enrollees who joined the team in January. The remaining eighteen recruits from the 2013 class will make their debut on the Hill during the summer.↩
2. Led by key returning linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt.↩
3. Note: I've listed Maggitt at WLB and Reeves-Maybin at SLB, but that's a mistake on my part. Maggitt will almost certainly play lined up over the tight end (the strong side of the formation), with JRM as the chasing pass coverage weakside linebacker.↩
4. Note: Swafford has been listed as a walk-on and a greyshirt, but appears to be a regular scholarship player now.↩