Hunter Turner -- Offensive Line
No, this isn't a cry for help nor a sign that I've contracted Malignant Orange and White Spotted Fever (aka Acute Fulmeritis). Instead, it's an observation based on two things:
- Tennessee's offensive line has looked steady and unremarkable; and,
- Dontavius Blair may finally be developing into a contributor.
First, Tennessee's offensive line was so disastrous last year that Butch Jones is lucky the governor didn't call in the National Guard. It's a minor miracle that the offensive line has looked reasonably competent so far this spring despite missing starter Marcus Jackson. In addition, the Vols' new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and offensive line coach Don Mahoney have played musical chairs at center and both guard positions, regularly rotating starting right guard Jashon Robertson, sophomore Coleman Thomas, junior Dylan Wiesman, redshirt sophomore Austin Sanders, and freshman early enrollee (EE) Chance Hall. Despite all of the cross-training and player movement, Tennessee's offensive line has more than held its own through spring practice, which is rather remarkable considering where expectations were at the end of the year.
Second, former four-star junior college offensive tackle Dontavius Blair may finally be emerging as the player he has the capability to be. I'll admit, I never thought that it would happen, but if recent practice reports are to believed, Blair has found an inner well of resolve and finally begun to piece together the mental consistency to harness his substantial physical gifts. If Blair can continue to progress and contribute as even a serviceable player, he'll instantly solve one of the Vols' most vexing offensive questions and strengthen the depth of the entire unit. With four-star offensive tackle Drew Richmond and massive three-star offensive guard Venzell Boulware expected to enroll for the first summer session in June, Tennessee's offensive line unit should go from the worst unit on the football team to the one of the best.
Spring practice is misleading under the best of circumstances-- veteran players miss time due to injury or suspension (Derek Barnett, Curt Maggitt), summer recruits have yet to make an appearance on campus (Kahlil McKenzie, Justin Martin), and virtually unknown backups appear out of nowhere (Kendall Vickers). However, no matter how delicately any of the beat writers try to spin it, poor offensive line play during the spring is a sure sign of serious problems for the upcoming football season. So far, that doesn't seem to be the case for Tennessee this year.
Incipient Senescence -- Defensive Line
Last year, the defensive line was the biggest surprise on the team. Nobody expected it to be any good, featuring a freshman, a semi-forgotten defensive tackle from the Dooley era, a semi-forgotten defensive end from the Dooley era who was being beefed up to play defensive tackle because we didn't have any defensive tackles, and a talented pass-rusher who had battled injuries his whole career. None of whom, by the way, had started the previous year. But Steve Stripling took that bunch and proved himself to be one of the best assistant coaches on the staff, molding it into a unit that anchored a remarkable turnaround, with a defense that was 100th in yards per play allowed and 79th in points allowed in 2013 improving to 46th in yards per play allowed and 34th in points allowed in 2014.
Certainly, the line wasn't perfected. It was undersized in the middle and as lacking in depth as the rest of the team, leading to more breakdowns as the game went on. But it was as good as could be expected against the run, and it was far better than could reasonably expected against the pass, with Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt both hitting double-digit sack totals after the whole team had managed just 18 the previous year. It wasn't an SEC title line, but it was a good line.
And this year? One contributor is gone. Barnett returns, a year older and a year stronger. Corey Vereen and Danny O'Brien are now juniors. Maggitt is still here, and the talent level on the defensive line is good enough that he could move to linebacker. Oh yeah, and Tennessee brought in five blue-chip prospects along the defensive line, with borderline five-star Shy Tuttle showing out in spring practice and five-stars Kyle Phillips and Kahlil McKenzie ready to step on the field in the fall. I'm not sure what says more about the excitement surrounding the Vols defensive line right now: that they are bringing in this kind of haul on the defensive line, or that none of them will need to start immediately. With the exception of Williams, the players from last year are back. The coaching is obviously there. And with this new influx of talent, the depth will be there in 2015. And if McKenzie, Tuttle, Phillips, Darrell Taylor or Andrew Butcher pull a Barnett and can't be kept off the field? Even better.
Nathanael Rutherford -- Defensive Line
I think most people will just mindlessly say "defensive line" when asked about which unit is the strongest for the Vols. I'm not disagreeing that defensive line is the strongest; I'm saying people say this without actually thinking about how good this unit actually is. Defensive line is the strongest unit both literally and in terms of talent for the Vols in 2015.
Butch Jones spoke at the beginning of spring practices about how much strength the linemen on both sides of the ball have gained, and that can only be good news for a unit that already looked good despite lack of depth in 2014. Players like Derek Barnett and Owen Williams have had an additional year in the strength and conditioning program at UT, and they still have a whole summer ahead of them to get even stronger.
That leads me to my next point, and that concerns the depth of the unit. Defensive line might be the deepest unit on the team not only because of the amount of bodies, but also because of the pool of depth available. Kendall Vickers has looked great during spring practices so far, and he's unlikely to even crack the two-deep once the season begins. Danny O'Brien and Owen Williams would be solid defensive tackle starters for the Vols, but add in five-star recruits Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie to the mix and that makes the tackle position even more impressive. The fact that Vickers has looked good and is probably only a 3rd team tackle speaks to the depth at tackle.
And that depth is even deeper at defensive end. Derek Barnett had an All-American type of season as a freshman in 2014, and Curt Maggitt should be just as disruptive this season as long as he stays healthy. LaTroy Lewis has really come on as a quality defensive end, and Dimarya Mixon is adjusting well to his move from defensive tackle. Throw in a bevy of talented freshmen (Andrew Butcher, Kyle Phillips, and Darrell Taylor) and defensive end is loaded, as is the whole defensive line in general.
Michael W Bratton -- Secondary
I agree with the thought process behind ranking the defensive line as the Volunteers top unit, however even if that's accurate, I believe their play could result in the secondary being Tennessee's top position group in 2015.
The secondary boasts just as much talent as the defensive line but has significantly more experience with seniors Brian Randolph, LaDarrell McNeil and juniors Cam Sutton, Malik Foreman and Devaun Swafford expected to play significant roles this season. The youth on the roster ain't bad either lead by Todd Kelly Jr., Evan Berry, Emmanuel Moseley, Rashaan Gaulden, Stephen Griffin (Luke Kuechly National High School Defensive Player of the Year in 2014) and soon to be joined by elite JUCO signee Justin Martin.
The coaching staff has praised the secondary numerous times this offseason as the unit that have bred the most competition out of any unit on the team. Despite returning so many experienced players, Tennessee will be entering the summer with every spot up for grabs due to the competitive nature presently being displayed by these players. Even the best player on the team, Cam Sutton at nickel, is being asked to try out a new position in an effort to get the best combination of players on the field at the same time. The competition has become so heated that the coaches have been awarding a "lockdown chain" to the player that earns the best practice performance after each and every practice. Secondary coach Willie Martinez came up with the idea to push his unit and reward the players that bring the most effort and intensity to practice. So far this spring, Malik Foreman, Cam Sutton, Todd Kelly Jr., Evan Berry, Rashaan Gaulden and Emmanuel Moseley have all been awarded the "lockdown chain" following excellent practices.
Perhaps the player that has improved the most following his first spring practice on the team has been Evan Berry. Don't be shocked if Berry plays his way into a starting role this fall despite this being his first full offseason with the team. Berry, Gaulden and Kelly have all displayed the type of maturation you want to see in players following their first season of college football after gaining invaluable on-the-field experience their freshman seasons. Moseley really started to come on as well late in his freshman season, but after surviving a terrible car accident and battling a case of mono, one would forgive him for having a slow return to the team. His first practice back, he intercepted three passes. So much for easing back into the rotation. That type of performance just goes to show how deep this unit goes heading into the summer and may only get better if Justin Martin is as good as advertised.
Will Shelton -- Wide Receiver
The best news here is there are so many legitimate options. That said, I'm sticking with the old reliable Wide Receiver U. We haven't seen this group at full strength yet because almost all of them dealt with an injury of some kind last season, while also struggling to reach their potential during the transition from Justin Worley to Josh Dobbs behind an offensive line that didn't allow much time to get rid of the football. And we're still just a few years removed from having three NFL receivers on the field at the same time.
But none of that keeps me from getting very excited about rolling out a wide receiver corps that's now legitimately six deep before you throw incoming freshman Preston Williams into the mix. We know what Marquez North can do in the big play department. Pig Howard transitioned from probably not on the team to probably Tennessee's most important receiver, his production making a significant leap when Dobbs took over. The Vols don't beat South Carolina in 2013 without North and in 2014 without Howard.
We saw just a glimpse of the fully healthy Von Pearson that's been getting more praise this spring; he had 7 catches for 75 yards in the TaxSlayer Bowl when half of these guys were out. We saw just a glimpse of Josh Smith, but others in this group will have to fight to keep him off the field. Jason Croom has developed into a nice option and Josh Malone, with all his potential, is still developing...but as is the case in so many position groups, the Vols now have a level of competition that means we don't need Croom and/or Malone to catch 50+ balls for us this year to still be successful.
This is a deep and multi-faceted group that should take full advantage of knowing who their quarterback is and spreading defenses out. I don't expect one of them to separate themselves; I expect all of them to help Tennessee win a lot of games.
Chris Pendley -- ....
I ignore spring practice.