The Tennessee Volunteers are coming off arguably the worst season in school history. Therein lies the challenge facing new head coach Jeremy Pruitt and his staff. The good news is that the Tennessee roster is far from void of talent. Based on the Vols’ recruiting efforts over the last few years alone, there should be plenty of pieces in place, even if some of that talent is largely unproven.
Regardless, the Volunteers’ new staff will have plenty of question marks and concerns to address when spring practice gets underway in Knoxville in just a couple of weeks. The biggest challenge will be acclimating the players to an unfamiliar playbook and new schemes on both sides of the football, as well as identifying the players that best fit in those schemes.
That will put every player on Tennessee’s spring roster squarely under the microscope, as Pruitt and company try to formulate the various pieces of that puzzle. Here are five of the most intriguing players to keep tabs on as spring practice unfolds.
Jarrett Guarantano, QB
Guarantano had a rough introduction to SEC football last season, compiling a record of just 1-5 as the Vols’ starting quarterback. He also spent much of his redshirt freshman season running for his life behind an injury-plagued offensive line. Highlight moments were few and far between, but Guarantano did complete 62 percent of his pass attempts with a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2017.
The challenge now will be transitioning from Butch Jones’ spread attack to a pro-style offense under new coordinator Tyson Helton. And Guarantano doesn’t have much time to prove himself before graduate transfer Keller Chryst arrives on campus in June. Chryst has plenty of experience in a pro-style offense, starting 13 games for Stanford over the last two seasons, and he isn’t coming to Knoxville with the intention of sitting on the bench in his final season of eligibility. Guarantano will need to perform at a very high level to solidify the starting job this spring.
Darrin Kirkland Jr., LB
The former High School All-American earned Freshman All-SEC honors after compiling 66 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, three sacks and an interception in 10 starts at middle linebacker for the Vols in 2015. After suffering a high ankle sprain early in his sophomore campaign, Kirkland (above, right) made just six starts and never really returned to form. He was further sidetracked in 2017 with a torn meniscus that caused him to miss his entire junior season.
Kirkland’s injury history is cause for concern, and there will be plenty of rust to knock off as he makes his way back on to the field this spring. But his return couldn’t come at a better time for a Vols’ linebacker corps that has struggled mightily over the last two seasons without him. His size (6-1, 238) and athleticism should make for a perfect fit in the middle of new head coach Jeremy Pruitt’s preferred 3-4 defensive scheme. And if Kirkland can stay healthy, there is little doubt that he will provide a huge boost for the Tennessee defense in 2018.
Tyler Byrd, WR/DB
We could see several position changes for the Vols under Pruitt this spring. Byrd seems to be the most likely candidate, projecting to switch from wide receiver to cornerback for his junior season. Byrd already lists himself as a defensive back on his Twitter page. And the move makes plenty of sense considering Tennessee’s need at cornerback, along with the fact that Byrd earned All-American honors in 2016 as one of the nation’s top high school defensive back prospects.
He also was a standout wide receiver in high school, which prompted Jones to use the gifted athlete as a slot receiver. Following a promising freshman season, Byrd seemed to fall out of favor with the former coaching staff, posting just three catches for 27 yards and a touchdown as a sophomore.
The transition back to cornerback might prove challenging, but Byrd certainly has the skill set and measurables to excel at his new position. He could prove to be a huge asset for a thin Tennessee secondary, and the potential is there to earn a starting role in 2018.
Jerome Carvin, OL
The recent news that All-SEC offensive tackle Trey Smith will miss spring practice with an undisclosed medical condition is a huge blow for a Tennessee offensive line that was already incredibly thin. That means the Vols will begin spring camp with just seven scholarship offensive linemen on the roster, comprised mostly of underclassmen with little experience.
That is a serious issue of concern for Pruitt and new offensive line coach Will Friend. But if there is a silver lining, the door will be wide open for several young offensive linemen to showcase their talent this spring. One of those players is Carvin, a true freshman.
The four-star offensive tackle has been on campus since January, reaping the benefits of the Vols’ strength and conditioning program. At 6-foot-4 and 330 pounds, Carvin already has an SEC-ready frame to work with. And he will have every opportunity to carve out a prominent role for himself in 2018 with a solid showing this spring.
Shy Tuttle, DT
The departure of Kendal Vickers and Kahlil McKenzie leaves the Vols’ roster paper-thin when it comes to big-bodied defensive linemen. Tuttle (6-2, 308) is one of just two or three players currently on the roster with the physical makeup necessary to fulfill the nose tackle position, with Tennessee likely transitioning to a base 3-4 defense this spring. Tuttle also is the most talented prospect vying to fill that position.
The former five-star recruit has shown flashes of greatness in the limited time that he has been fully healthy. But much like Darrin Kirkland Jr., Tuttle has spent most of his career at Tennessee sidelined by serious injury. As he once again makes his way back from injury, spring practice will be critical for his progression. Tuttle will need to prove that he is back to 100 percent and that he can stay out of the training room. If that happens, the rising senior could be a force to be reckoned with this fall.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.