The Tennessee Volunteersare slated to kick off the first of 15 spring practice sessions on Thursday, officially ushering in the Josh Heupel era in Knoxville. Heupel hopes to bring a renewed sense of optimism and energy to Rocky Top following a successful three-year run at UCF, where he led the Knights to a 28-8 record. However, the new head coach and his staff will have their work cut out for them after inheriting a team that regressed on both sides of the football last season en route to a dismal 3-7 record under former head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
Heupel and Co. also inherit a program facing impending NCAA sanctions, as well as a host of other concerns following a turbulent offseason that included a mass exodus of key players via the transfer portal. That leaves plenty of question marks for the Volunteers and their new coaching staff heading into this crucial spring camp. The hope is that the next few weeks will go a long way in addressing some of those burning questions before the conclusion of spring practice on April 24 with the Orange and White Game.
5 Storylines to Watch During Tennessee's Spring Practices
1. A fresh start makes for a difficult transition
The new coaching staff has already begun the process of establishing a new culture and laying the foundation that will help determine the future direction of the program. However, there is still a very long to-do list and a fairly short window in which to tackle it this spring. On top of installing brand-new schemes and playbooks on both sides of the ball, Heupel's staff will be charged with identifying the players that best fit their system and developing depth on a roster hit hard by attrition. Offensively, the Vols will transition to an unfamiliar up-tempo spread attack that will require plenty of fine-tuning. There also could be a steep learning curve on defense, where Tennessee will move from a base 3-4 defense to a "multiple look" scheme (likely 4-2-5 and/or 4-3) under new defensive coordinator Tim Banks. Meanwhile, the players will be tasked with soaking it all up in short order, all while acclimating to the on-field coaching styles of a new staff.
2. The quarterback competition
There are plenty of intriguing position battles on tap for the Vols this spring, but none will be more compelling or important than Tennessee's quarterback competition. While this wide-open competition is expected to linger well into fall camp, a golden opportunity awaits for one of four scholarship signal-callers to separate himself from the pack over the next five weeks.
Second-year quarterback Harrison Bailey, who started the final three games for Tennessee last season, is widely considered the early front-runner to land the starting job. The former five-star prospect probably has the most arm talent and potential among the four contenders. However, Bailey did struggle with his downfield accuracy at times last fall and often held onto the football far too long. If those issues persist, it could hurt his chances of snagging the starting job in Heupel's new high-octane offense, where quick decision making and deep-ball accuracy are essential.
Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker will likely be Bailey's toughest competitor. Hooker made 25 appearances and 15 starts for the Hokies over the last three seasons, passing for 2,894 yards and 22 touchdowns against seven interceptions. He also excelled as a runner, racking up over 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. Hooker could have a leg up in the competition as the most experienced and athletic signal-caller on the roster. Although, his lack of consistency and polish throwing the football does raise some doubts.
Rounding out the competition are third-year quarterback Brian Maurer and highly touted true freshman Kaidon Salter. Maurer, who started four games for the Vols in 2019, has shown flashes during his time in Knoxville and looks to be a good fit for Tennessee's new offense. But he will need to make big strides this spring and improve on his erratic play to become a serious contender for the starting job. Salter, ranked as the No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in the nation out of Cedar Hill High School in Texas, is a dynamic athlete with a big arm and plenty of upside. But even as an early enrollee, it will take some time for the four-star prospect to get up to SEC speed. Salter's lack of experience at the college level will be his biggest obstacle in this competition.
3. Help wanted at linebacker
One of Tennessee's top priorities this spring will be trying to fill some significant holes at linebacker. Starting inside linebackers Henry To'o To'o and Quavaris Crouch are currently in the transfer portal and unlikely to return. The Vols also lost their top two pass rushers from last season in Deandre Johnson (transferred to Miami) and Kivon Bennett (dismissed from the team). So, who will step up this spring?
Jeremy Banks and Aaron Beasley appear to be the early favorites to replace To'o To'o and Crouch if they elect not to return. Martavius French and four-star early-enrollee Aaron Willis were expected to make a strong push for the vacant inside linebacker spots this spring, but that was before both players were suspended indefinitely for a recent off-field incident. Roman Harrison and Morven Joseph are talented outside linebackers who could transition inside and challenge for those spots as well. Solon Page III is another veteran option. And the possibility exists that running backs Len'Neth Whitehead and Tee Hodge could make the switch to linebacker. Up-and-coming second-year linebackers Tyler Baron and Bryson Eason could also move into the trenches at defensive end this spring in a bid to bolster the pass rush in Tennessee's revamped defense. That is a possibility for prized junior college transfer Byron Young as well.
4. Searching for playmakers at the skill positions
The Volunteers lost a huge chunk of their production at the skill positions from last season, with Eric Gray (Oklahoma) and Ty Chandler (North Carolina) leaving the program by way of the transfer portal. Tennessee also loses leading wide receiver, Josh Palmer. While the Vols do not return much in the way of experience at the skill positions, there is no shortage of potential talent on the roster.
The competition to replace Gray and Chandler at running back should be particularly interesting this spring. Jabari Small (117 yards) is the only returning running back that played more than a handful of snaps last season and should be firmly in the mix this spring. Dee Beckwith also saw a handful of snaps last season, but at 6'5" 220 lbs., Beckwith may prove more useful at wide receiver or tight end in Heupel's offense. The most intriguing candidate is Tiyon Evans, the No. 1-ranked junior college running back in the nation. Speedy freshman Jaylen Wright and second-year backs Hodge and Whitehead also figure to feature prominently in Tennessee's wide-open running back competition this spring.
Tennessee has plenty of exciting options at wide receiver. Velus Jones Jr. and Jalin Hyatt are the top options as the only receivers on the roster not named Josh Palmer to catch more than 20 passes last season. Malachi Wideman, Jimmy Calloway, and Jimmy Holiday are promising second-year wideouts who will also factor heavily into the competition for playing time this spring. Ramel Keyton, Cedric Tillman, junior college transfer Andison Coby, and 4-star freshman Walker Merrill will be vying to garner the attention of Heupel and new wide receivers coach Kodi Burns over the next few weeks as well.
5. Big shoes to fill along the offensive line
Tennessee entered the 2020 campaign with big expectations for an offensive line that featured four former five-star prospects. Unfortunately, that group never quite lived up to its lofty billing. And now the Vols are charged with replacing four key players up front that made multiple starts over the last couple of seasons in All-SEC left guard Trey Smith (NFL), left tackle Wanya Morris (Oklahoma), center Brandon Kennedy (NFL), and tackle Jahmir Johnson (Texas A&M).
The hope is that the players returning from last season's suspect offensive line will take a big step forward in 2021. One thing is for sure, playing time should be up for grabs across the board with new offensive line coach Glen Elarbee starting with a clean slate. That being said, there are a few prospective favorites with starting experience heading into spring practice. Cade Mays is practically a lock to capture a starting spot as someone that has experience playing all five positions along the O-line. Former five-star Darnell Wright returns and should challenge to regain his starting spot at right tackle. K'Rohjn Calbert may be the favorite to take over the vacant left tackle job (if he can stay healthy). Jerome Carvin, Cooper Mays, Javontez Spraggins, and Riley Locklear are all experienced players that are expected to push for starting roles this spring as well. Building depth along the offensive line will also be critical this spring with the Vols transitioning to an up-tempo offense.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Top photo courtesy of utsports.com)