Optimism reigns supreme for Vols entering their second spring under Jeremy Pruitt, but questions remain
It was an uphill battle from the start for the Tennessee Volunteers in Jeremy Pruitt’s first year on Rocky Top. The Vols ultimately limped home to a 5-7 record and missed out on a bowl game for the second year in a row. But the 2018 campaign wasn’t a complete fail. Tennessee fans were treated to a pair of upset victories over ranked SEC opponents and improvement was evident despite some serious growing pains along the way.
Tennessee now sets its sights on the 2019 season, as the Volunteers embark on the first of 15 spring practices today in Knoxville, culminating with the annual Orange and White game on April 13 inside Neyland Stadium. The expectation is that this spring will be a much smoother experience for the Vols in year two of the Pruitt era. The foundation has been set, players know their roles, as well as the expectations. And their head coach should have a much better grasp on his duties and the roster in general. A roster that is in far better shape than it was at this time last year.
Tennessee returns most of its starters on both sides of the football, and the nation’s No. 12-ranked signing class will provide an influx of new talent to further bolster the roster. That lends hope for a bright future for the Vols. However, plenty of question marks remain. Spring practice could go a long way in unraveling some of these mysteries as we get our first glimpse at the 2019 Volunteers.
5 Storylines to Watch During Tennessee's Spring Practice
1. New-look coaching staff
While Tennessee's returning players should be far more comfortable in their second spring under Jeremy Pruitt, they will need to acclimate to a coaching staff that underwent a major overhaul this offseason. The biggest adjustment will come in the form of new coordinators on both sides of the football.
Jim Chaney makes his return to Rocky Top as offensive coordinator, replacing Tyson Helton, who left for the head coaching job at Western Kentucky. Meanwhile, former Raiders’ and Alabama defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley takes over as defensive coordinator in place of Kevin Sherrer, who will now focus on special teams and linebackers. Ansley, a first-time defensive coordinator, also takes over play-calling duties from Pruitt (which should be interesting). Additionally, Ansley will serve as defensive backs coach, replacing the collective efforts of Terry Fair and Charles Kelly.
Tennessee also added a familiar face to the staff in Tee Martin. The former national championship-winning quarterback returns to Knoxville to take over as wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator for the Vols. Martin replaces David Johnson, who will now serve as running backs coach. While Chris Weinke will transition from running backs coach to quarterbacks coach. Confused yet?
It will be very interesting to see how the players respond to the new personalities on the practice field this spring. But the big question is — will we see any significant changes under the revamped staff? The Vols aren't expected to steer far away from the systems and schemes put in place on either side of the football last season. However, there are sure to be several new wrinkles, particularly on offense, where it's anticipated that Chaney will have a lot more control than his predecessor.
2. The offensive line
The offensive line has been a huge sore spot for the Vols for each of the last two seasons. And while it remains a major question mark heading into spring practice, there is reason for optimism. The only bad news is that standout offensive lineman Trey Smith's future is still uncertain due to blood clots in his lungs. And Drew Richmond, a multi-year starter, is planning to transfer.
The good news is that the Vols still return a wealth of experience along the O-line for 2019, with at least seven players that have made multiple starts over the last two seasons. Even better, a productive offseason in the weight room should pay big dividends for several players that were vastly undersized last season. And perhaps best of all, Tennessee managed to haul in one of the top offensive line classes in the nation, bringing in five new offensive linemen via the 2019 signing class, including highly touted five-stars Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris.
In terms of spring, the competition should be fierce along the offensive line. Redshirt junior Jahmir Johnson, who showed promise in 11 starts last season at right guard and has added 40 pounds to his 6-foot-5 frame during the offseason, is expected to retain a starting role. Senior center, Brandon Kennedy, is likely to keep his spot as well, although he will be very limited this spring. Otherwise, the competition should be wide open.
Redshirt juniors Marcus Tatum, Ryan Johnson and Nathan Niehaus, all of whom started at least six games for Tennessee last season, will be heavily in the mix. As will sophomores Jerome Carvin and K'Rojhn Calbert, among others.
But all eyes will be on the aforementioned Morris. The 6-foot-6, 315-pound early enrollee already looks the part of a starting SEC lineman and is expected to make a legitimate push for one of the vacant tackle spots. The competition should really heat up this summer with the arrival of three more freshman offensive linemen, including Wright, the No. 2-ranked offensive tackle prospect in the nation.
3. The defensive line
Tennessee's defensive line situation entering spring camp can best be summed up in one word — mystery. The Vols are charged with finding replacements for four of their top defensive linemen from last season, including all three starters. And while there are a few intriguing prospects with potential upside, most of the players vying for playing time up front this spring are relative unknowns that are short on experience.
Senior Emmit Gooden is the exception. Gooden made the most of his opportunities last season, racking up 33 tackles and ranking second on the team with 7.5 tackles for a loss in a reserve role. He seems like a safe bet to earn a starting job in 2019.
Highly touted Michigan transfer, Aubrey Solomon, is easily the most intriguing defensive lineman competing for the Vols this spring. The former five-star prospect should have no trouble exiting spring camp with a starting gig. But that matters little if he is not declared eligible for the 2019 season, which has yet to happen.
A few of the other names worth keeping tabs on this spring are sophomore John Mincey, redshirt freshman Kingston Harris, junior Matthew Butler, and redshirt freshman Kurott Garland. Mincey, in particular, is a promising young talent that the coaching staff seems extremely high on.
It will also be interesting to monitor the progress of former four-star defensive line prospect Greg Emerson this spring. The redshirt freshman failed to gain much traction last season while trying to make his way back from a serious ankle injury. He should be ready to compete at full speed.
Tennessee will have three additional defensive linemen arriving this summer to help fuel the competition and add depth. That group is headlined by Savion Williams, the top-ranked junior college defensive tackle prospect in the nation for 2019. Williams is expected to make a big push for a starting spot.
The quarterback position is always a big storyline heading into spring camp. And while it's highly unlikely that a quarterback controversy will emerge this spring with incumbent Jarrett Guarantano seemingly entrenched into a starting role, questions remain with the redshirt junior signal-caller.
Guarantano showed improvement in 2018, and he was quite efficient in his efforts. But he was far from great and big strides will need to be made for Tennessee’s offense to reach its full potential in 2019. Guarantano will enter spring practice under the direction of his fourth offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in as many years. The question is — Can Chaney and Weinke take Guarantano to the next level?
Perhaps the bigger question pertaining to the quarterback position this spring is — which of Tennessee’s young signal-callers will step up to serve as Guarantano's backup? Redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout will have a leg up with a year in the program already under his belt. He also brings a big arm to the competition. Meanwhile, early enrollee Brian Maurer seems supremely confident in his abilities, coming off a monster senior season at West Port High School in Ocala, Florida, and then a strong showing at the Elite 11 finals.
Both players have upside, and this spring should go along way in furthering their development. That will be critical, as there is a good chance that one of these young quarterbacks will be called upon to take meaningful snaps this fall.
5. Early enrollees
Tennessee has 10 players from its 2019 signing class already on campus, nine of which will be full participants in spring practice. This includes Morris and Maurer, but there are a few other newcomers that could make a big impression on the practice field this spring as well.
Four-star athlete Quavaris Crouch may be the most compelling of the early enrollees. The prized recruit will compete for playing time at outside linebacker this spring. However, you could see Crouch on the other side of the football at running back at some point as well.
Four-star safety Jaylen McCollough is another highly touted early enrollee. McCollough is expected to challenge for a starting spot this spring. Four-star running back Eric Gray could carve out a significant role for himself with a strong showing this spring as well. And the same can be said for wide receiver Ramel Keyton and defensive back Warren Burrell. All four of these players have received high praise from the coaching staff during offseason workouts.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.