The Orange and White Game beckons on April 16, but with the Vols returning so many starters and the "game" itself likely to more closely resemble an open practice, any revelations there should be few and far between. The opportunities presented this spring have not just been limited to the second team, however. A handful of Vols have generated consistent buzz throughout spring practice, each of them coming at a position of need for Team 120. Three names in particular will look to transition their success from spring to fall; you never really know until then, but so far you've heard what you wanted to hear from this bunch this spring:
UT offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, not prone to hyperbole,— Jimmy Hyams (@JimmyHyams) March 31, 2016
called WR Preston Williams `a great player’ who is showing maturity.
For four weeks last fall it looked like Williams would start living up to his hype immediately. After catching three passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns against Western Carolina, he added two for 19 against Arkansas and two for 41 in the win against Georgia. He had a couple of key drops in those games as well, but those are to be expected for true freshmen along the way.
Then he got hurt and missed the next four games, and failed to catch a pass upon his return in late November. So those seven catches ended up being his entire year, with his 22.6 yards per catch average making him a leading candidate for the mythical deep threat in this offense.
Fast forward to a spring when it's especially important for Tennessee to establish consistency at receiver, and Williams has drawn routine praise from coaches and media. It's my guess it's his name you've read the most this spring on message boards and Twitter feeds. This is a very good sign for a receiver who will be two seasons removed from an ACL tear this fall, and a very good sign for Tennessee's passing game.
I love the way #Vols safety Rashaan Gaulden plays the game. I’m just worried about his health. Hits waaaaay too hard for a 178-pounder.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) April 2, 2016
From the final whistle of the Outback Bowl to the start of spring practice, it felt like Tennessee's biggest on-field question was going to be at safety. The graduation of Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil left Todd Kelly Jr. and a host of questions. Turns out we were penciling in Rashaan Gaulden in the wrong spot.
Under Bob Shoop Gaulden has been working at safety as opposed to nickel back, where his loss in fall camp last year was a difficult one for Team 119. The redshirt sophomore is still more potential than anything else, though that's not his fault with a foot injury robbing him of the breakout season almost everyone expected last August. But now that hype has blossomed in spring; if Gaulden can be an answer for the Vols at safety, Tennessee can continue to roll with Cam Sutton, Justin Martin, and the ever-developing Malik Foreman at nickel to round out their starting secondary, a familiar group of names that can still allow competition to develop behind them as the Vols bring in plenty of talent in the secondary. Gaulden's aggressiveness is no doubt fed by having to take a year off, but if the Vols can harness it well Tennessee could find good answers at every spot in the secondary this fall.
Stripling on Kahlil McKenzie: "As soon as y'all see him, tell him to get down and get lower." Leverage remains a point of emphasis.— Patrick Brown (@patrickbrownTFP) March 25, 2016
Kahlil McKenzie is one of the better pictures of the overall health of Tennessee's program right now. He came in last year as one of the highest-rated recruits in recent memory, and his freshman year was...fine. It was fine. He had 24 tackles and one of just about everything else (one sack, TFL, pass deflection, hurry, and forced fumble). Defensive tackle is one of the hardest places for a true freshman to come in and dominate, even if you're as big as McKenzie. Had this been five or six or even two years ago, we would have done the thing we always do with five stars and assume immediate domination...but we also really would have needed it to be successful. But the Vols are deep enough now to where even our highest-rated recruits can progress naturally and we don't have to downplay fine for a true freshman.
Tennessee's depth is stretched most thin at defensive tackle right now, no doubt. With Alexis Johnson suspended the Vols have Kendal Vickers, Danny O'Brien, McKenzie and a host of question marks. How quickly can Shy Tuttle get back to 100%? Will any of our converted defensive ends be able to make an impact? Will Johnson return to the team?
In the meantime, McKenzie's natural progression - a year stronger, a year wiser, a year in better shape overall - is still the natural progression of one of the best recruits in the country. The Vols don't need him to win the Outland just yet, but if he can be a force in the middle while the Vols send Derek Barnett and quality depth (great band name) after quarterbacks at end? McKenzie's progress is directly tied to the ceiling of this defensive line, which is directly tied to the Vols' ability to win championships.