Incipient Senescence - Shy Tuttle
If a skill guy comes in from JUCO and lights it up, that's not totally crazy. Cordarrelle wasn't that long ago. Even a skill guy coming in as a freshman and lighting it up is not unheard of. A lineman (more specifically, a lineman who isn't a pass-rush specialist) coming in and being the talk of spring ball? That's different.
We all kinda expect it from Kahlil McKenzie (who arrives this fall) because McKenzie is a freak of nature. But in most years, even your five-star defensive tackle prospects are not stepping up and demanding minutes in their first few weeks of college ball. Tuttle was a borderline five-star (though just a four in the final rankings), but while he had potential, it looked like down-the-road potential. He had the frame, he had the skills, but he always looked a little pudgy, and he just plays a really difficult position in which to make an immediate impact.
Yet here he is, showing the kind of quickness that nobody expected of him this early. Here he is, making an immediate impact.
Good work, Shy. Keep it up.
Will Shelton - Kendal Vickers
Kendal Vickers, and a bit by default.
Who's going to start on the defensive line in the Orange & White Game with everybody and their brother rehabbing some kind of injury? I don't know if Vickers is going to start come fall and I know the freshmen will get all the hype at tackle (and deservedly so, as pointed out on Tuttle). But this is the kind of guy who can stand out in spring when your team is back to competing for championships. Instead of clinging to quotes or snippets and hoping, "Hey, maybe Vickers can start and be awesome for us every week this fall!", you get to see natural progress and plug it in the depth chart, even if he doesn't start, to give you quality when the starters need a rest and/or the freshmen are getting acclimated. Watch the great Tennessee teams of old, and you realize some of the names you remember weren't even starters. Great teams have good players on the bench. I don't know if Tennessee is going to be a great team this year, but I think they got a good player in Vickers.
Nathanael Rutherford - Joshua Dobbs
I think who has surprised me most has actually been Josh Dobbs. Keep in mind that in his first two seasons, he hasn't even made a full season of starts in those two seasons combined. Yet from what I've seen at practice, he looks like a 2-year starter who has started every game of every season he's been on campus. He has much more confidence, and it's showing. His throws have more zip and he commands the line of scrimmage before the snap. His mechanics look sounder, and he's made very good decisions in the 9 spring practices so far. We all knew he could run and break big plays on the ground, but if his deep ball accuracy has improved, he'll be just as potent as a passer.
Michael W Bratton – Alvin Kamara
I'd go with Alvin Kamara on this one. Tennessee has had far too many elite five-star recruits that have failed to live up to the hype their first year on campus, Kenny O'Neal, Chris Donald, Ben Martin, Brent Vinson, Bryce Brown, Janzen Jackson and Josh Malone all come to mind as recent examples. Judging from the spring, Kamara will not be adding his name to this list. Whether it's busting big plays in practice, making one of the best players on the team look foolish with his speed (JRM) or simply adding depth to a position that sorely needs it, it's hard to imagine Kamara not having a huge impact on Team 119.
Until the spring, I was unaware that Kamara and Dobbs grew up playing with and against one another in Georgia since middle school. Their bond off the field should help ease any transition Kamara may have after a year off from SEC level football. Anticipate the coaches using Kamara in a number of creative ways this season, ranging from jet sweeps, read option, receiving out of the backfield and in the slot, screens, draws and even in a loaded backfield with Jalen Hurd on the field at the same time. Kamara has shown this spring he will be a nightmare matchup this season for the Vols.
One last reason to love Alvin Kamara? Alabama is suddenly thin at running back heading into the summer and their best option behind Derrick Henry now suits up in Orange.
Hunter Turner - Dontavius Blair
Tennessee has several breakout candidates from 2014's heralded recruiting class, including defensive backs Rashaan Gaulden and Evan Berry, but the most surprising player in the Vols' spring practice sessions has been redshirt junior Dontavius Blair and not for the right reasons. The former junior college transfer remains as physically impressive as ever, but through the first two-thirds of spring practice Blair has been primarily working with the scout team, unable or unwilling to forge the mental consistency it would take to contribute. Blair continues to play too passively, marring moments of competence with spates of low-effort and poor concentration.
Butch Jones values consistent performance over inconsistent flashes of brilliance, so with Blair struggling, Kyler Kerbyson is once again working as the starting left tackle, despite his known limitations in pass protection. Blair recently managed to string together a few impressive practice repetitions, so maybe he'll manage to turn a corner... but for a four-star junior college offensive tackle expected to step in and play immediately, Blair has been a complete disappointment. His struggles are the surprise of the spring so far-- not that he hasn't transformed into Tony Boselli, but that he hasn't managed to become a useful contributor.
Chris Pendley - Cam Sutton
Cam Sutton has surprised me by not already being in the NFL.