Camp is officially here. The Tennessee Volunteers resumed practice this morning in Knoxville, beginning the final phase of the offseason ahead of their September 2nd opener against Bowling Green.
This program is once again in full rebuild mode, now led by offensive whiz Josh Heupel. The team is full of question-marks entering Heupel’s first season, and we’re finally about to start getting some answers.
Here’s what I’ll be paying the most attention to over the next few weeks.
Quarterback — specifically Joe Milton
You knew this topic was coming, so let’s just get it out of the way right off of the bat. This quarterback battle is undoubtedly the story of the next month as Josh Heupel finds his signal caller for year one and perhaps beyond. Chapter one of this battle was written in the spring, as Brian Maurer, Harrison Bailey and Hendon Hooker got comfortable in the offense.
Now a new player enters the battle. Former four-star quarterback Joe Milton transfers in from Michigan, where he won the starting job last fall. The physical tools are all here for Milton, but to this point, he’s yet to put things together. He’s been playing catch-up all summer long, but nothing can replace those reps missed in the spring.
How quickly does Milton get up to speed? How much has Harrison Bailey improved since the spring? That’s what everyone will be monitoring over the next month, as Heupel will have a little under a month to make his decision.
Wide receiver pecking order
If there’s one thing we know here, it’s that Velus Jones Jr. is set to play a big role as a ‘super senior’ this fall. But what happens beyond Jones is less clear. Tennessee has plenty of options, but none with significant experience.
The conversation starts with Jalin Hyatt, who will bring elite speed as a sophomore. Hyatt did a little more than get his feet wet as a true freshman, providing Tennessee with several big plays, most notably coming against Alabama. The new staff will want plenty more of that, as Hyatt figures to be one of the starters on the outside in this new offense.
From there it’s wide open. You’ve got veterans like Cedric Tillman and Ramel Keyton, who are logical choices to step up and take their turn as big time contributors. However, you’ve also got pieces like Jimmy Calloway, Jimmy Holiday, JaVonta Payton, along with first-year players like Walker Merrill and Andison Coby.
Payton, a senior transfer from Mississippi State, is likely to make some noise on this depth chart considering the lack of experience on the roster. Calloway generated some buzz during the spring sessions, and has a chance to earn playing time during camp.
Overall, Tennessee has plenty of talent here, but the picture has yet to come totally into focus.
Offensive line combination
Trey Smith, Brandon Kennedy, Wanya Morris and Jahmir Johnson are all gone, meaning a new era of offense line play is here. Glen Elarbee’s options aren’t short, however. He’ll retain Cade Mays for at least another season to help ease the transition. Where Mays lands up front is one key question that we need answered.
The former five-star prospect played guard last season, but he’s also spent time at left tackle at Georgia. He’s in the mix to land in that spot once again with Morris out of the picture. Dayne Davis and K’Rojhn Calbert also got work at the left tackle spot during the spring.
“We’re going to play him at guard, play him at tackle,” offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said of Cade on Tuesday. “He played a bunch at tackle in the spring, played a bunch of guard in the spring. We’re going to end up playing our best five there. He’s one of them. We’ll figure out where the best spot is. More so, how others fit and then where he would fit from there.”
Cooper Mays is set to replace Brandon Kennedy at center, while Jerome Carvin is expected to hold down one of the guard spots. Former five-star prospect Darnell Wright is the favorite to start at right tackle. Javontez Spraggins really showed up during spring and may make a push of his own for a starting spot at guard.
Just judging off what we heard out of spring, a guess (Left to right) would be Davis-Carvin-Mays-Mays-Wright.
Impact of defensive transfers
Tennessee was hit harder than anyone by the transfer portal this offseason, creating several holes in the roster for the new staff to fill. Key players like Henry To’o To’o, Quavaris Crouch, Wanya Morris, Key Lawrence, Eric Gray and so many others have created questions, particularly on the defensive side.
The biggest addition is likely to be linebacker Juwan Mitchell, who becomes the top option to replace To’o To’o. The veteran defender from Texas is a much-needed reinforcement, giving the Volunteers a leader and a solution in the teeth of the defense. He takes the field today for the first time as he tries to get up to speed quickly in Tim Banks’ system.
Defensive linemen Da’Jon Terry and Caleb Tremblay will provide immediate depth for Tennessee up front. Cornerbacks Brandon Turnage and Kamal Hadden both will see their first action as Vols today, providing some much needed help in the secondary. All four of these players should see significant playing time right off the bat.
These first few days are critical to get in some sort of groove, utilizing new terminology, adapting to new voices and new schemes. How quickly they can do that is something to watch for over the next few weeks.