Back in February we looked at Tennessee's recruiting stars in their projected starting lineup. Thanks to excellent work on the recruiting trail by Butch Jones and company, this should easily be the most talented starting 22 we've seen since the Fulmer Era, with talent evenly distributed on both sides of the ball. The Vols have two players on the Maxwell Award preseason list and three more for the Bednarik. Tennessee can go toe-to-toe with the rest of the SEC at a majority of position groups in the starting lineup.
But on the second team? We think Tennessee has raw talent across the board there as well, but some of it will still be freshman talent. The Vols should be fine with regular substitution patterns, even playing at an accelerated pace. But is Tennessee deep enough to still chase its goals when the bumps and bruises start taking their toll?
Thankfully there are a few places where the Vols appear to have fully rebuilt with enough talent to provide quality depth. But there are other places where an injury or two could lead to 2015 feeling like the last five years all over again, where new faces are forced to carry loads they may not be ready for just yet.
Here's a look at each position group and its second team readiness this fall:
QB: What it's supposed to look like: a proven signal caller in the starting lineup, and a bunch of young talent behind him. Every team, of course, would love to have multiple proven guys, but that's usually not the natural course of events. So for the first time since Fulmer's days, we have both a present and a future people can be excited about. Quinten Dormady is the assumed backup should something happen to Josh Dobbs, but there would be several options to choose from if the Vols had to look elsewhere for more than a few snaps.
RB: If you consider Alvin Kamara a backup, then all is well. If you don't? Tennessee has one game-changer in Jalen Hurd and may have another in Kamara, but there appears to be a significant drop from there and a definite drop from Hurd to everyone else in experience. Hurd is the only Vol running back with a carry in an orange uniform to his name. Depth comes in the form of Cincinnati transfer Ralph David Abernathy IV, who at 5'7" could play a Devrin Young role in this offense, and freshman John Kelly. Last year Hurd and Marlin Lane accounted for 96.4% of the meaningful RB reps for the Vols.
WR: We're good here. Tennessee's top ten pass catchers from last season will all return (pending Von Pearson's status with the team), plus Josh Smith returning from injury, plus incoming blue chip Preston Williams. Tight end is a bit more of a question mark, but there are a number of options behind Ethan Wolf.
OL: We saw last year the cost of playing true freshmen on the offensive line. So while fans may be really excited about Drew Richmond, Jack Jones, and the like, we should also expect to see the usual suspects in the starting lineup early and often. Guys like Richmond should be able to help Tennessee in spots this year, but if they are forced into action too soon the line's chances of improving on last year's abysmal performance could suffer.
DL: Tennessee is incredibly strong at defensive end. Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett are both on the Bednarik list, Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis both have a ton of experience entering their junior seasons, and there are freshmen to be excited about as well. The freshmen are driving the hype train at defensive tackle, with Kahlil McKenzie's arrival coming off Shy Tuttle's work with the first team in spring practice. The Vols don't have experienced stars at tackle like they do at end, but if the young tackles provide the stars the veterans have plenty of experience. Danny O'Brien and Owen Williams were in plenty of meaningful situations last year, and if Trevarris Saulsberry can ever get healthy you can add his name to the mix. The Vols can't replace a Maggitt or Barnett and can't duplicate what they'll get on paper from McKenzie, but the other options are serviceable.
LB: Jalen Reeves-Maybin tied for the team lead in tackles last season and had 11 TFLs. After him, nothing is certain. Linebacker is one of Tennessee's biggest question marks in 2015 even before you think about the Vols in a traditional 4-3 look. If Curt Maggitt does indeed spend most of his time at defensive end, the Vols will be relying on not just one but two unproven options in the starting lineup before we even start talking about depth. There are plenty of recruiting stars in the conversation, from redshirt freshman Dillon Bates to incoming guys like Darrin Kirkland, Jr., but no one is entirely sure who's going to end up where. Quantity is fine, quality to be determined.
DB: The Vols are loaded at safety, as one of LaDarrell McNeil or Todd Kelly, Jr. won't start. At corner it will be interesting to see if sophomore Emmanuel Moseley can hold on to his starting spot opposite Cameron Sutton once fall camp arrives and JUCO Justin Martin gets in the mix. Rashaan Gaulden and Evan Berry should also get in the mix this fall.
When discussing which player the Vols can least afford to lose, it's always a good idea to start with the quarterback. No matter who you are, the starting quarterback tends to be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle and the one requiring the greatest adjustment if injury strikes. So yeah, despite three promising freshmen, the Vols don't need to lose Dobbs. But beyond him, who are Tennessee's most valuable players? Where is the drop-off the steepest?
I would start with Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Without him and with Maggitt at end, it's just a total question mark at this point at linebacker. JRM won't be the most heralded player on this team, but he may be the one Tennessee can least afford to lose in September.
I'd throw Cam Sutton in the conversation as well, just because he's so good at locking down one corner it would have to change some of what Tennessee did defensively were he to be out. And while the Vols are fortunate to have two backs as talented as Hurd & Kamara, if one of them goes down could Butch Jones just ride the other for 25 carries per game?
Who do you think are the players the Vols can least afford to lose?