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Rashaan Gaulden Injury Adds Additional Question Mark To Depth Chart

Another starter last for the year leaves the Vols with another hole to plug in their starting lineup.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Butch Jones today confirmed earlier reports of a foot injury to Tennessee sophomore defensive back Rashaan Gaulden, and the official take revealed the news was worse than originally feared:

The Vols are now down three players in this fall camp, including a pair of projected starters in Gaulden and offensive guard Marcus Jackson.  As the Vols move from preseason camp mode toward the real thing in two weeks, the depth chart continues to take shape.  Along with Gaulden and Jackson's replacements, several newcomers have been making a push for playing time.  Quality depth should allow the Vols to rotate a number of players in a number of spots, but there are still several unproven commodities and unanswered questions as Tennessee starts thinking about Bowling Green.

We've spent the last two months looking at the big picture questions for the Vols, but here are a few of the smaller details left to be filled in between now and kickoff:

  • What does Tennessee do at nickel? Gaulden didn't start last year, but was disruptive on special teams in picking up seven tackles.  In this sense some (including me) believed he would follow the Jalen Reeves-Maybin career path, going from special teams force as a freshman to defensive playmaker as a sophomore.  Coaches gave hints he had won the nickel battle even back in spring, and so his sudden absence forces someone else to the front.  Much of the answer here depends on the health of junior college transfer Justin Martin, who suffered a minor knee injury earlier in camp.  If the Vols can go with a healthy Martin, Emmanuel Moseley, and Cam Sutton (who will now wear Gaulden's #7) at corner and nickel, that should ease the burden of playing without Gaulden.  It would be an interesting move to put Tennessee's best individual corner at the nickel position, but Sutton's versatility may allow the Vols to put their best 11 on the field with him shifting over.  Gaulden's injury also moves Malik Foreman back up the ladder in the secondary, and creates an opportunity for freshman Micah Abernathy.
  • Who starts at receiver after Marquez North and Pig Howard? This one may be more fan service than anything else, as the Vols should get a lot of guys a lot of snaps.  But the return of Von Pearson and the emergence of Jauan Jennings, who may lead fall camp in coaches' sound bites, has kept spirits high even as Jason Croom seems slow to recover from off-season surgery and Preston Williams remains MIA via ACT.  With Josh Smith also back in the mix and Josh Malone also earning praise for increased consistency, this field is stacked.  Maybe we get several different starters throughout the year, maybe one guy separates, but either way Tennessee has plenty of weapons.
  • Who is the number two tight end, and can the Vols run any two tight end sets effectively? Very different issue at tight end, where A.J. Branisel has transferred and incoming freshman Kyle Oliver is no longer on the team.  Sophomore Jakob Johnson has moved over to tight end and impressed early, but he's obviously still raw.  Alex Ellis returns, but only caught six passes last year.  Tennessee struggled to run the ball on third and short last season, and found little success lining up with multiple tight ends and trying to get a yard.  Ethan Wolf returns and the line should be better, but there appears to be a significant drop off from Wolf to the next option.
  • Will Tennessee start another true freshman on the offensive line? Jack Jones appears to have been the biggest mover since Jackson got hurt, and if he can start at guard the Vols could stay with the other four projected starters in their same spots on the offensive line.  Tennessee has the depth it lacked up front last season, so there should be opportunities for more than five guys to play this year.  But if the coaching staff feels comfortable with Jones at guard, Tennessee won't have to do as much shifting up front.
  • Will Kahlil McKenzie and/or Shy Tuttle earn a start at defensive tackle? McKenzie is still yet to have his black stripe removed, though one wonders how much of that is purely motivational.  These two are going to play, no doubt, as are Danny O'Brien and Owen Williams.  I'm curious to see if Butch will reward one of his two biggest freshmen with a start or let them work their way to that privilege.
  • Will Tennessee start a true freshman at middle linebacker? Darrin Kirkland has been locked in a battle with Colton Jumper and Kenny Bynum, and there appears to be a real chance the true freshman could win the job.  Here again, two or three of these guys should play, and there could be some movement here depending on if the Vols are playing 4-3 or nickel.  Kirkland is one of the best examples of both getting really excited - look how awesome this kid could be! - and realizing where we still are - can we really win the East starting a freshman at MLB?