The Tennessee Volunteers officially open up fall camp on Tuesday, August 4th, and there are several questions heading into the practices that need answering. Competitions at a number of positions expect to be heated, and there are a handful of newcomers that will be worth watching all throughout camp.
Butch Jones and his coaching staff will look to sort out most of these question marks by the time the season starts on September 5th, and Jones will have a chance to address a couple when he takes the podium on Monday for his press conference that kicks-off fall camp.
Here are five questions facing the Vols at the start of fall camp.
The Vols have some question marks facing their roster at the start of fall camp, most notably with Von Pearson at wide receiver. With a recent report surfacing claiming that Pearson's suspension was briefly lifted back in May only to be reinstated a few days later, more questions have arisen over the last few days. The report also states that Pearson's status is now somewhat in limbo, and his suspension is still intact. Given this information, it's not likely Butch Jones will have any updates on Monday, and the legal process will still have to play itself out. No matter how long that takes.
Incoming freshman wide receiver Preston Williams is also somewhat of a mystery right now, as his last known ACT exam has been flagged by the NCAA. Williams likely must retake the ACT and have his exam regraded, and the timetable for the whole process is unclear. But for now, Williams won't be allowed to practice with the team or participate in other team activities. Any sort of insight into the situation would be welcome.
The other questions facing Tennessee's roster, however, are less grim. Most of the other question marks are around players potentially switching positions. Because of the uncertainty around Von Pearson, quarterback Jauan Jennings may get a look at wide receiver. Butch Jones stated last week that Jennings could "get some work at other positions" this fall but failed to elaborate as to which positions specifically. Jakob Johnson will transition from linebacker to defensive end, and defensive linemen Dimarya Mixon and Kendall Vickers will continue to move to defensive end and tackle respectfully.
A good portion of Tennessee's starting positions are more or less set heading into fall camp, but there are still a handful of positions up for grabs. The most notable position battle is at middle linebacker, where Dillon Bates, Gavin Bryant, Kenny Bynum, and Darrin Kirkland Jr. are all expected to compete to win that starting job. Also up for grabs on defense is the second cornerback and nickel cornerback position. Rashaan Gaulden appeared to have the edge at nickel in the spring, but whoever loses the battle for the second corner spot between Emmanuel Moseley and Justin Martin will likely give Gaulden a fight.
On offense, there will be plenty of jockeying along the offensive line during camp. One of the fiercest battles will be at center where incumbent senior starter Mack Crowder will attempt to hold off sophomore Coleman Thomas for the job. Kyler Kerbyson is expected to man one of the tackle positions, and Brett Kendrick, Dontavius Blair, and Drew Richmond will likely fight for whichever tackle position remains.
Wide receiver will also see some shuffling. Depending on Von Pearson's status, Pig Howard will either be used at slot or more on the outside. Josh Smith and Josh Malone must also find a spot in the unit, and Jason Croom and Marquez North will look to fill similar roles as potential deep threats and red zone targets.
Two of the units that faced the most consistent scrutiny last season were offensive line and wide receiver, and the progression of both those positions will be closely examined during fall practices.
Offensive line was widely regarded as the least effective unit for the Vols in 2014, and another year in the weight room and an influx of young talent should help develop the group. After giving up an SEC-worst 43 sacks in 2014, the offensive line can really only get better. But just how better will depend on how the linemen responded to an offseason under new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord's system and how they develop under him in the fall.
At wide receiver, the Vols have plenty of talent but were unable to capitalize on that for most of 2014. Pig Howard led the team in both receptions and yards, but injuries and inconsistent play plagued nearly every other receiver on the team. Marquez North, Jason Croom, Josh Smith, and Von Pearson all missed time with injuries, and Josh Malone played through a nagging injury down the stretch. With some roster attrition at the position, the current group of receivers needs to step up their play and find consistency for 2015 to be a success.
Health of Injured Players
Injuries plagued a good number of Vols last season, most notably on offense. All but Pig Howard essentially suffered injuries in the receiving corps, and freshman running back Jalen Hurd even took some blows. Players along the offensive line were banged up throughout the season, and even tight end Ethan Wolf missed some time due to injury. Defensive players weren't exempt from the rash of injuries either, as Dillon Bates, Trevarris Saulsberry, Corey Vereen, and several others were banged up throughout the season.
A handful of players sat out of spring practices or were very limited due to surgeries or recovering from injuries last year. Aforementioned players such as Josh Smith, Marquez North, Jason Croom, and Jalen Hurd were very limited during the spring, and even newcomers such as Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Kyle Phillips were held out after minor surgeries. It's imperative that these players, especially the wide receivers, can recover fully and quickly from their injuries and contribute this season. Injuries were a problem last year for the Vols, and they can't afford for them to be an issue again this year if they want to achieve their goals.
Progress of Newcomers
The Vols are welcoming in another 17 newcomers to their roster at the start of fall practices, and they are headlined by some highly-touted names. Kahlil McKenzie, Drew Richmond, Justin Martin, and Sheriron Jones all make their debut on the practice field for the Vols this week, and they will be followed closely throughout the fall.
Tennessee is finally in a position where they don't need the majority of their incoming recruiting class to contribute right away as freshmen. But a handful of the incoming 2015 recruiting class will look to make an impact as soon as the season begins, and defensive tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle expect to be two of the freshmen who will compete for starting jobs right away. JUCO transfers Alvin Kamara and Justin Martin figure to play significant roles as well. How these newcomers acclimate to the team and pace of practice will be worth watching.