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Tennessee Football Depth Chart Projections: What We Think We Know

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We're getting close to an idea of what the Vols will look like in just 19 days.

Kevin C. Cox

Through one week and one scrimmage of fall camp, you can get a sense of Tennessee's personnel beginning to take shape.  Although Butch Jones doesn't appear to be a big fan of official depth charts and has adopted a silent stance on injuries this fall, between the lines it sounds like the Vols now have a pretty good idea who will be in the mix when Utah State comes calling on August 31.

In our attempt to make a mock depth-chart, there are several and/ors in here.  With a team so unproven that's unavoidable; so far fall camp has been more about who can help right now and less about whether they'll help with the first or second team in several spots.  Still, as you'll see, with so few seniors listed here there is plenty of fluidity in the two-deep; so many newcomers could be a curse in August but a blessing by November.

Here's where we think the Vols will stand heading to the opener, with key questions for each position group:

QUARTERBACK

  1. Justin Worley (Sr)
  2. Nathan Peterman (RSo) OR Josh Dobbs (So)
Questions Remaining: Will Nathan Peterman be the first man up if the Vols need to go to the bench this fall?  I think it will definitely be Peterman in mop-up duty; the ideal situation for Tennessee is keeping Worley healthy and redshirting Dobbs.  But if Worley isn't performing up to par or gets hurt again, will Peterman get a second chance?  Perhaps a more important question for the future is what's going on with Dobbs?  He was sharp (mostly against backups) in the Orange & White Game but has been unable at any point to overtake Justin Worley in the race, and now may truly be the last option for this season.  But he could be right back in the race for 2015 when Worley's safety net is gone.  Whether it's now or later, the Vols need Dobbs to figure it out and compete for the starting job.  He's still a young kid who's plenty smart; here's hoping we haven't seen the last of Dobbs in the hunt for this job.

RUNNING BACK
  1. Marlin Lane (Sr)
  2. Jalen Hurd (Fr)
  3. Devrin Young (Sr)
  4. Derrell Scott (Fr)
Questions Remaining: While a lot of attention will go to how good Jalen Hurd can be, and how quickly he can be that good, Marlin Lane is reliable enough to not cause any panic if Hurd isn't running with the first team on August 31.  Last year Rajion Neal got 57% of UT's tailback carries and Marlin Lane got 27%.  That's a more even ratio than what Jones and Bajakian used at Cincinnati, but I think with so many potential weapons back there we're going to get several long looks at not just Hurd, but Devrin Young.  There's an awful lot of excitement here and few nerves.

WIDE RECEIVER
  1. Marquez North (So)
  2. Josh Smith (So)
  3. Josh Malone (Fr)
  4. Jason Croom (RSo)
SLOT RECEIVER
  1. Von Pearson (Jr) OR Pig Howard (Jr)
  2. Vic Wharton (Fr)
Questions Remaining: Why isn't Josh Malone on track to win the Heisman Trophy this fall?  This is like a level one (on a scale of one to Derek Dooley) panic issue, and perhaps our first and best reminder that five-star freshmen are still freshmen.  He was relatively quiet in spring practice before blowing up the Orange & White Game, and has been relatively quiet in fall camp thus far, overshadowed by Josh Smith, who lacks Malone's physical gifts but has a year of experience and tribulation under his belt.  One obvious connection we failed to make yesterday in looking at Smith's rise in fall camp:  his 10 catches for 164 yards and a score in the Vols' first six games all came with Justin Worley at the helm; his two catches the rest of the year might have something to do with that.

Malone will play, Smith will play, and hopefully all will play well.  Last year only three Vols caught 20+ passes, but at Cincinnati under Butch Jones the Bearcats had five 20+ pass catchers in 2012, four in 2011, and six in 2010.  This is an offense, at its best, that likes to involve everybody.  That means it may not matter whether Von Pearson or Pig Howard starts in the slot; I'd expect big involvement from both.

TIGHT END
  1. Ethan Wolf (Fr)
  2. Brendan Downs (Sr) OR Alex Ellis (Jr) OR Daniel Helm (FR)
Questions Remaining: A true freshman starter is always a question mark, but Ethan Wolf became one of four freshman Vols to have their black stripe removed yesterday, and appears to have opened a lead on a mosh pit of inexperience and recovery at tight end.  Not listed is A.J. Branisel, who could also get in the mix if healthy.  So much uncertainty here could make it difficult for the Vols to go with two tight end sets, though those days may not be far away once Wolf and Helm mature.  Can Wolf be a real factor, and will someone else emerge to provide support?  The Vol offense could use an extra dimension here.

OFFENSIVE LINE
  • LT Jacob Gilliam (Sr) OR Dontavius Blair (Jr)
  • LG Marcus Jackson (Jr), Austin Sanders (RFr)
  • C Mack Crowder (Jr), Dylan Wiesman (So)
  • RG Kyler Kerbyson (Jr), Jashon Robertson (Fr)
  • RT Coleman Thomas (Fr), Brett Kendrick (RFr)
Questions Remaining: While the whole group is a bit of a question mark after Marcus Jackson, most of the concern is at the tackle spots.  Coleman Thomas is a true freshman, although he was here this spring.  One of the most intriguing position battles remaining is fifth-year senior Jacob Gilliam or JUCO star Dontavius Blair at left tackle.  We've said it before:  Gilliam is a great story we'd all get behind, you just don't want a great story to get you beat.  This whole group is also a major "don't get hurt" unit; the Vols feel good about their interior line but would get very nervous and even more green if one of those guys went down with injury.  Ray Raulerson could also get in this mix but if all stay healthy may be in line for a redshirt.

DEFENSIVE END
  1. Curt Maggitt (Jr)
  2. Corey Vereen (So)
  3. Derek Barnett (Fr)
  4. Dewayne Hendrix (Fr)
DEFENSIVE TACKLE
  1. Danny O'Brien (RSo)
  2. Jordan Williams (Sr)
  3. Owen Williams (Jr)
  4. Trevarris Saulsberry (Jr)
Questions Remaining: We said earlier the defensive line is the biggest difference between the Vols and the great teams on their schedule.  Tennessee has tried to alleviate that idea, which is bolstered by the loss of all four starters last year, by moving Curt Maggitt from outside linebacker to defensive end and sliding Jordan Williams from defensive end to defensive tackle.  The real help at defensive tackle won't arrive on the roster until next year, so Tennessee may have significant issues in the middle all year no matter who's in there.  Owen Williams joins three upperclassmen in some combination to form the two deep at defensive tackle.

There's much more upside at end.  Corey Vereen enters his sophomore season after a disruptive first campaign.  Of a slew of true freshmen options at defensive end, Derek Barnett appears to have separated himself early and will definitely play against Utah State.  Maggitt, if he can stay healthy (which is copied and pasted from his entire career), has the biggest chance to be a difference maker at end.  I think by year's end we'll have quite a few playmakers out of this bunch, potentially including Jakob Johnson as well.  But at first, Butch Jones will rely on his upperclassmen to hold the line up front defensively.

LINEBACKER
  1. A.J. Johnson (Sr)
  2. Jalen Reeves-Maybin (So)
  3. Dillon Bates (Fr)
  4. Chris Weathered (Jr) OR Kenny Bynum (Jr) OR Justin King (Jr) OR Neiko Creamer (Fr)
Questions Remaning: Like most teams, the Vols spent more time playing nickel than a base 4-3 last year, so depth at linebacker becomes slightly less important.  When the Vols do go 4-3, it could mean instant playing time for Dillon Bates at outside linebacker when Maggitt is lined up at end.  When the Vols are in the nickel, it'll be interesting to see if Bates can overtake JRM at the other linebacker spot this fall.  A.J. Johnson is this team's surest thing and its most valuable player heading into the season.  So outside of what Bates can do there are few questions here, though Tennessee would love to get something out of late arrival Chris Weathered this season as well.  Stay healthy and the Vols should be solid here.

CORNERBACK
  1. Cameron Sutton (So)
  2. Emmanuel Moseley (Fr)
  3. Justin Coleman (Sr)
  4. Malik Foreman (So)
  5. D'Andre Payne (Fr)
  6. Evan Berry (Fr), Elliot Berry (Fr), Rashaan Gaulden (Fr)
SAFETY
  1. Brian Randolph (Jr)
  2. Devaun Swafford (So)
  3. LaDarrell McNeil (Jr) OR Todd Kelly (Fr)
  4. Cortez McDowell (Fr)
Questions Remaining: In the nickel package the Vols appear to have four of five spots locked down:  we knew Cameron  Sutton and Brian Randolph would be solid, senior Justin Coleman has had the nickel spot locked down since moving there this spring, and freshman Emmanuel Moseley won the other corner job in the spring and has not relinquished it this fall.  That leaves the other safety spot, where former walk-on Devaun Swafford is also yet to loosen his grip on a starting job over junior LaDarrell McNeil or true freshman Todd Kelly, Jr.  Both should play, and the staff may be hoping Kelly can eventually overtake Swafford in the starting lineup.  Another question here is how many of the corner options will see the field in meaningful situations this fall other than on special teams.  Malik Foreman has been working at nickel behind Justin Coleman.

This mock depth chart should look fairly close to what we see on August 31, but may look drastically different than the one we're seeing in November even before injuries take their toll.  The Vols' four highest-rated recruits - Hurd, Malone, Bates, and Kelly - may not start in August but will definitely play, and should push for that role as the season goes along.  Coleman Thomas, Ethan Wolf, and Emmanuel Moseley have already established their roles with the ones.  And Derek Barnett has become the first emerging star from fall camp, despite exciting options ahead of him at defensive end.  So while we expect the Vols to start at least three true freshmen against Utah State, by the end of the year it could be as many as eight, with several others in the two-deep.

19 days...