Jeremy Pruitt and the Vols kick off spring practice today in Knoxville with plenty of reason for optimism
There didn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel for the Tennessee Volunteers after starting the 2019 football season off with a 1-4 record. At that point, the Vols were given less than a five percent chance to become bowl eligible by TeamRankings.com. But a resilient Tennessee squad would go on to emphatically defy those odds, winning six of its next seven contests. The Vols followed up with a victory over Indiana in the Gator Bowl to close out the 2019 campaign at 8-5, riding the momentum of a six-game win streak into the offseason.
More good news has since made its way to Rocky Top over the last few months, highlighted by All-SEC guard Trey Smith’s decision to return for his senior season, former five-star offensive lineman Cade Mays opting to transfer home from Georgia, and the Vols landing a top-10 recruiting class.
And the time has finally come to get back to work on the field, as third-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt and his Volunteers are set to embark on the first of 15 spring practices today in Knoxville, concluding with the annual Orange and White Game on April 18. While there is plenty of reason for optimism, there are several question marks that need to be addressed this spring as well. Hopefully, the next few weeks will provide some answers and give us some additional insight into what we can expect from the Vols in the upcoming 2020 season.
5 Storylines to Watch During Tennessee’s Spring Practice
1. The quarterbacks
Tennessee’s quarterback room has become extremely crowded with six prospective signal-callers all vying for time under center for the Vols this spring. And each one has an intriguing storyline all their own. Jarrett Guarantano is the obvious front-runner to exit spring as Tennessee’s starting quarterback. However, serious question marks remain for the fifth-year senior heading into his final season in Knoxville. And as we witnessed last season, Guarantano could be hard-pressed to hold on to the starting job for the long haul if he doesn’t take a big step forward in 2020.
Sophomores Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout, who each replaced Guarantano in the starting lineup at various times last fall, should be the next two quarterbacks in line to receive snaps — at least in the early stages of spring practice. Both quarterbacks showed flashes last season but struggled mightily at times as well. Maurer brings plenty of moxie to the competition. He also makes quick decisions, albeit not always good ones. Shrout has a cannon for an arm but needs to improve on his accuracy and game management skills.
Maryland transfer Kasim Hill makes for an intriguing sleeper candidate as the second-most experienced quarterback on the Vols’ roster behind Guarantano. The former four-star prospect made several starts for the Terrapins in 2017 and '18 with mixed results. He brings plenty of upside to the table, but past struggles with accuracy and durability could continue to haunt him in Knoxville. It will be interesting to see if Hill is given a legitimate opportunity to make a run up the depth chart this spring.
Newcomer Jimmy Holiday, a three-star prospect out of Mississippi, is a dynamic athlete with blazing speed. But the early enrollee is going to require plenty of polishing as a passer to become an SEC-ready quarterback. That is why many believe his skill set may be best suited at wide receiver or running back for the Vols. Nevertheless, Holiday will begin his Tennessee career at quarterback, where he could carve out a role for himself in the Wildcat package this spring.
Last, but certainly not least, is highly touted true freshman Harrison Bailey. No player on Tennessee’s roster has generated more buzz heading into spring practice than the five-star prospect out of Marietta, Georgia. Bailey has all the necessary tools to excel as an elite passer in the SEC, and he is already being pegged as the next great quarterback at Tennessee. But even if Bailey does manage to ascend all the way to the top of the Vols’ depth chart at some point this season, expectations of immediate success and stardom should probably be tempered to some degree. Just like any other true freshman, there are going to be growing pains.
2. A revamped coaching staff
It has become commonplace for college football programs around the country to see at least some turnover in their coaching staff each year. Tennessee is no exception, as the Vols will have some fresh faces roaming the sidelines this season, along with some familiar faces taking on new responsibilities. The good news is that Jim Chaney and Derrick Ansley will be back in their respective roles for 2020, marking the first time since 2014 that the Vols will have coordinators returning on both sides of the football.
The most glaring changes will be seen on the defensive side of the football. Jimmy Brumbaugh comes to Tennessee by way of Colorado to take over as the new defensive line coach. Brian Niedermeyer will make the transition from tight ends coach to inside linebackers coach. And former Tennessee quality control analyst Shelton Felton returns to Knoxville to coach outside linebackers after spending last season at Akron in that role.
The Vols also added a familiar face to the offensive staff with Jay Graham making his return to Rocky Top as running backs coach. And Joe Osovet received a well-deserved promotion from an off-the-field role at Tennessee to take over for Niedermeyer as tight ends coach in 2020. Spring practice will give us our first glimpse at the revamped coaching staff in action.
3. Competition at wide receiver
Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway were responsible for a huge chunk of Tennessee’s production at the wide receiver position last season — combining for 89 catches, 1,604 yards, and 14 touchdowns. It’s going to be a tall order to replace that production in 2020, along with the tremendous leadership that both of those players brought to the table. The good news is that the Vols have no shortage of potential talent returning at wide receiver. The bad news is that most of those players are largely unproven. That should make for some pretty intense competition this spring.
Seniors Josh Palmer and Brandon Johnson are the most experienced wideouts in the bunch. Palmer appears poised to step up as the No. 1 option for the Vols in 2020. And while he’s certainly talented enough to do so, his lack of consistency over the last three seasons leaves some room for skepticism. The same is true for Johnson, who saw his numbers drop dramatically as a junior after leading the Vols in receptions and receiving yards as a sophomore in 2017.
Sophomore Ramel Keyton could be the breakout star that the Vols are looking for this spring. He flashed some big-play ability in limited action last fall, averaging 26 yards per catch as a freshman. Former Georgia transfer Deangelo Gibbs is a gifted athlete with plenty of upside as well. And rounding out the notable contenders are redshirt sophomore Cedric Tillman and USC graduate transfer Velus Jones Jr. Tillman has flashed some ability and should be able to carve out a bigger role for himself this spring. Jones is a burner who could make a splash in the slot but is more likely to make an impact as a return specialist for the Vols this season. The competition at wide receiver will really amp up later this summer with the arrival of four highly touted newcomers in Malachi Wideman, Jalin Hyatt, Jimmy Calloway, and Dee Beckwith.
4. Big shoes to fill on defense
While Tennessee returns most of its starters on defense from last season, there are some gigantic voids that need to be filled on that side of the football with the departure of inside linebacker Daniel Bituli, outside linebacker Darrell Taylor, and safety Nigel Warrior.
Bituli led the Vols in tackles in each of the last three seasons. He also served as the chief play-caller and leader for Tennessee’s defense in 2019. Sophomore Henry To’o To’o will look to step into that role this spring after a breakout freshman campaign alongside Bituli at inside linebacker last season. But that still leaves an opening, and the Vols are incredibly thin at the inside linebacker position heading into spring practice. J.J. Peterson, Solon Page III, and Aaron Beasley will be the top three contenders this spring, with Peterson likely having the edge. That said, sophomore Quavaris Crouch will probably be the favorite to win the job when he returns from injury this summer. Freshmen Bryson Eason and Martavius French also could make a strong push for that vacancy when they arrive this summer.
Taylor’s pass-rushing abilities will be sorely missed after he led the Vols in sacks by a wide margin over the last two seasons. Kivon Bennett, Deandre Johnson, and Roman Harrison will be first in line to try and fill that vacancy. All three players have shown at least some promise as edge-rushing outside linebackers. However, that group should get a serious run for their money when four-star prospects Tyler Baron and Morven Joseph enter the competition later this summer.
It’s also going to be no small task to replace Warrior, an All-SEC safety Nigel Warrior who made the most of his final season in Knoxville with 70 tackles, four interceptions (tied for first in the SEC) and nine pass breakups. Fortunately, the Vols have several promising candidates that could step into that role without a significant drop-off. Chief among them are junior Trevon Flowers, sophomore Jaylen McCullough, senior Theo Jackson, and freshman Keshawn Lawrence. Lawrence won’t arrive in Knoxville until this summer, which opens the door this spring for players like Cheyenne Labruzza and Tyus Fields to make an early impression.
5. Do the Vols finally have an offensive line?
Tennessee’s much-maligned offensive line has routinely been one of the biggest question marks for the Vols heading into spring practice over the last few seasons. That is not the case this spring, as Tennessee might just have one of the more dominant offensive lines in the SEC this upcoming season.
The surprise return of All-SEC guard Trey Smith is a big reason for such optimism. The addition of Georgia transfer Cade Mays is another, provided he is granted eligibility this season from the NCAA. Add rising sophomores Wanya Morris (who will miss spring practice) and Darnell Wright to the equation, and Tennessee will feature four former five-stars along its offensive line for 2020. Starting center Brandon Kennedy, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility this offseason, is no slouch either.
Despite the loss of Ryan Johnson and Marcus Tatum to the transfer portal this offseason, Tennessee’s offensive line is shaping up to be reasonably deep this season as well. Jahmir Johnson, Jerome Carvin, K’Rojhn Calbert, and Riley Locklear are all notable offensive linemen with previous starting experience that will provide quality depth. Promising young talents like Chris Akporoghene, Jackson Lampley, Ollie Lane, and Cooper Mays will bring additional depth to the offensive line rotation this spring. And more reinforcements will be on the way with behemoth guards Javontez Spraggins and James Robinson arriving later this summer.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.