After going consecutive years without a player taken, Tennessee will have plenty of attention in the 2017 NFL Draft. That will be obvious tomorrow, when a number of early round hopefuls take part in what will be the program’s most celebrated Pro Day in history. Part of that credit goes to Tennessee’s production department, which has a good way of making everything come off as the most celebrated version in program history. But there was only so much anyone could do with the level of talent coming out of Tennessee during the program’s long walk in the wilderness from Lane Kiffin through Derek Dooley.
This time the Vols will put future first-rounder Derek Barnett on display along with Alvin Kamara, Josh Dobbs, Josh Malone, Cam Sutton, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin as the headliners. All should be drafted and some, especially Kamara and Dobbs, have been trending upward since the Music City Bowl. It’s a testament to Butch Jones’ success on the recruiting trail in significantly increasing the program’s talent level.
We don’t have to be talking about the same quality of NFL potential this time next year for Team 121 to have better on-field results than Team 120. But if Tennessee is going to reach its goals this fall, it will probably happen because a handful of players made a bigger name for themselves and a better case for a job on Sundays. This time last year that handful was obvious: all the guys listed above plus Jalen Hurd. Looking ahead to Tennessee’s 2018 Pro Day, who are we most likely to see? That’s a tougher question to answer, but it’s not without options:
An easy test for a team’s most famous and/or most important player: who’s on the cover of preseason magazines, and which jersey numbers are they selling in stores? My money is on Jennings to lead the way in both categories.
He’s already placed himself in VFL lore by burning Jalen Tabor and catching a Hail Mary on consecutive Saturdays. Josh Malone led the Vols in receiving last year, but Jennings’ 580 yards on 40 catches would have led Tennessee in 2015 and 2013. If there is any question on Jennings’ on the field, that’s it: what can he do as the number one option, especially if the Vols fail to develop a consistent number two? But his highlight reel is already impressive, and if he’s able to add to it this fall he could easily be the first Vol off the board next April.
Todd Kelly Jr.
Most of the attention in the secondary this spring will be on the corners because the Vols have an abundance of talent at safety. Todd Kelly Jr. led the Vols in tackles last year and has eight career interceptions, the most productive of those options at safety. He has appeared in all but one game in his three years in Knoxville, and if the Vols do get better play at corner it could allow Charlton Warren and Bob Shoop to use him in ways that will better catch the eye of NFL scouts.
A strong candidate for a breakout year with an offensive coordinator who was highly involved with tight ends last fall. What are the two highest-reception games of Wolf’s Tennessee career? Both were quarterbacked by Justin Worley (Arkansas State & Georgia in 2014, five catches each). Throwing to tight ends is one of the few documented things Worley did better or just more often than Dobbs. Last year he caught four passes in the vanilla opener against Appalachian State, but the incredible catch pictured above against Florida was one of only two balls he caught over the next four games. Did you remember his production being that low?
Wolf came on more late - 4 for 44 against Kentucky, 4 for 33 against Vanderbilt - but without Malone, Kamara, and with a new, more pass-oriented quarterback? I think it’s in Tennessee’s best interests to have its senior tight end be a focal point of the 2017 offense, which could pay off for him on Sundays.
Senior Offensive Linemen
This is the last go-round for Brett Kendrick, Jashon Robertson, and Coleman Thomas. There’s plenty of talent behind them and we’ll see how the rotation shakes out, but they’ve already been part of two highly productive running games when healthy.
Defensive Tackles, If Healthy
Could Shy Tuttle or even Kahlil McKenzie have a monster year in the middle that led to an early jump to the NFL? To answer that question in the affirmative they’ll first have to stay healthy. Tuttle has been a force when that’s happened. McKenzie is still growing into his potential, but if he arrived a year early I wouldn’t write him off as an impossibility either.
John Kelly is going to get a loooooooooooot of touches. Can Evan Berry win the battle for playing time at safety to add to his already stellar return game merits? Will Trevor Daniel add his name to Tennessee’s punting pedigree? The more names we can add to this list as the season progresses, the better for Tennessee.
Who do you think we’ll be talking about on Pro Day next year?