The Tennessee football team will begin spring practice on Tuesday.
The Vols enter the spring with several players taking on more prominent roles. That’s because key players like Derek Barnett, Josh Dobbs and Alvin Kamara are gone. So are Josh Malone, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cam Sutton.
Tennessee football coach Butch Jones will meet with the media on Monday (hear it live on WNML at noon ET) and begin answering questions about the new year for Tennessee football. The Vols will try to answer as many questions as they can this spring while recognizing most of that will take place this summer and fall.
Here are five thoughts I have on Tennessee’s football team as the Vols begin spring practice.
Guarantano has a lot of hype
Maybe it’s fair. Jarrett Guarantano was a highly-touted quarterback when he signed with the Vols in 2016, and his commitment video in Times Square only added to the attention he received before he stepped foot on campus. Is he ready to take on junior Quinten Dormady, who has more experience but lower expectations entering the quarterback battle? We’ll see. Guarantano himself said in February that he’ll “run away” with the job if he ends up being named the starter.
Will the Vols look Rock solid?
Jones made several staff changes following the 2016 season, and the biggest one might have been in January when he hired Rock Gullickson to take over Tennessee’s strength and conditioning program. The veteran coach was asked to help a program that appeared to have grown weak following last year’s departure of coach Dave Lawson. Gullickson’s top priority is the offensive line, which has several veterans capable of playing well if they’re physically ready to do so. Freshman offensive lineman Trey Smith should also look the part.
John Kelly needs to be the real deal
Tennessee’s junior running back emerged in a big way last season. Kelly ran for 630 yards on 98 carries after taking on a heavier workload midway through the season. Tennessee’s coaching staff will need him to do that over the course of an entire season. Kelly is one of only two scholarship running backs currently on the roster; sophomore Carlin Fils-aime is the other. Three freshmen running backs will arrive this summer, but with the Vols relying on a new starting quarterback and several inexperienced wide receivers, Kelly will be asked to help lead Tennessee’s offense.
Where’s the pass rush?
Barnett is gone. So are LaTroy Lewis and Corey Vereen (graduation) as well as Dimarya Mixon (dismissal). That’s a lot of talent and experience at defensive end for Tennessee to replace. New defensive line coach Brady Hoke will be tasked with developing talented but unproven players, most notably Jonathan Kongbo and Darrell Taylor. Kyle Phillips will have an opportunity to prove his five-star rating out of high school was no fluke when he returns from injury in August.
Marquill Osborne needs to have a big spring
Osborne isn’t the only one, but he probably has the most upside among Tennessee’s returning cornerbacks. The sophomore saw the majority of his playing time on special teams last season while also working in at defensive back. Osborne can help at nickelback and cornerback. With Sutton and Malik Foreman gone and no one cornerback locked in as a starter, Osborne would do himself and Tennessee’s defense a favor if he plays well in the spring. Tennessee’s coaches have similar hopes for Baylen Buchanan, another rising sophomore who saw plenty of playing time last fall.
This offseason is probably going to be a long one. The 2016 regular season ended on such a negative note that nothing could realistically lift the spirits of most Tennessee fans before games are played in 2017. Not all fans are unhappy, but there are enough fans letting their voices be heard to know frustration exists in Vol Nation. Positive vibes will likely start to emerge when the season approaches, but that is still several months away. In the meantime, try to enjoy some spring football.