The Tennessee Volunteers are slated to hit the field on Tuesday for the first of 15 spring practice sessions, officially ushering in year two of the Josh Heupel era on Rocky Top. Unfortunately, the Vols’ 2022 spring practice will not culminate in traditional fashion, with the Orange and White Game canceled due to renovations to Neyland Stadium. Instead, they will conclude spring practice with a "closed to the public" intrasquad scrimmage held inside Anderson Training Center on April 9 as part of their "All Vol Weekend" celebration.
Unlike last year, Tennessee will kick off spring practice with some positive momentum following a surprising seven-win campaign in Heupel's first year at the helm. Fifteen starters return from last year's squad that went 7-6 (4-4 SEC), including eight from the Vols' record-setting 2021 offense — headlined by star quarterback Hendon Hooker and wide receiver Cedric Tillman. That's just one of several reasons for optimism. However, there are still plenty of question marks and concerns that Heupel and Co. must address this spring. The hope is that the next few weeks will provide some answers and give us some additional insight into what we can expect from Tennessee in the upcoming 2022 season.
5 Storylines to Watch During Tennessee’s Spring Practice
1. Hitting the ground running
Tennessee was facing a much different situation heading into spring practice this time last year. The Vols' new coaching staff was not only tasked with trying to change a toxic culture on Rocky Top, Heupel and company also were charged with installing completely new schemes and playbooks on both sides of the ball, all while trying to build team chemistry and identify the players that best fit their system. Attrition and injuries also left the Vols razor-thin at several position groups, making for an even more challenging spring camp.
With a full season now under their belt, the Volunteers will be able to hit the ground running this spring. The foundation has been laid, and the learning curve will not be nearly as steep. Sure, there are still issues that need to be addressed, just like any other team. But for the most part, the Vols will be able to focus more attention on the finer details this spring, as well as adding some nuances to what has already been established over the past year.
Continuity with the coaching staff should pay dividends for the Vols this spring as well. Tennessee managed to keep its on-field coaching staff from last season almost entirely intact, a rarity in today’s college football. The lone departure was wide receivers coach Kodi Burns, who made the move to coach in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints. The Vols promoted offensive analyst Kelsey Pope to replace Burns, keeping a familiar face in the fold.
2. Who will step up at wide receiver?
The Vols are fortunate to get Cedric Tillman back for another year following a breakout 2021 season that included 64 catches for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns. While Tillman's return bodes well for the Tennessee offense, new wide receivers coach Kelsey Pope will still be charged with filling some big shoes with the departure of Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton — Tennessee's No. 2 and No. 3 wide receivers from last season.
Outside of Tillman, the Vols don’t return much in the way of production at the wide receiver position from last season. That said, there are plenty of promising prospects lying in wait to showcase their talent this spring. And it will be crucial for the coaching staff to identify as many top options as possible to complement Tillman and keep the Tennessee passing attack hitting on all cylinders again next fall.
At the top of the list to replace Velus Jones in the slot is third-year receiver Jalin Hyatt (21 rec., 226 yds, 2 TDs in 2021). The gifted slot receiver was slated for a breakout season in 2021. Unfortunately, that didn’t come to fruition in a campaign plagued by inconsistency. Hyatt certainly has the tools to be a valuable weapon for the Vols, but this will probably be his make-or-break season. Hyatt’s biggest competition for the vacant slot position this spring will be Jimmy Calloway, Walker Merrill, and true freshman Marquarius "Squirrel" White.
There are bigger question marks when it comes to replacing Payton at the outside receiver spot opposite Tillman. Ramel Keyton might have the inside track on filling that role after serving as the primary backup last season. But he will have plenty of competition this spring. Some of the other top contenders include Jimmy Holiday, Kaleb Webb, Chas Nimrod and Cameron Miller. Tennessee will likely add another receiver by way of the transfer portal at some point this offseason as well.
3. Help wanted at cornerback
Tennessee’s biggest question mark heading into spring practice lies in the secondary. The Vols struggled mightily at times to defend the pass last season, giving up 273 yards per contest, which ranked dead last in the SEC and 122nd nationally. They also finished on a low note, allowing 534 yards and five touchdowns through the air against Purdue in the Music City Bowl. And now Tennessee faces the challenge of replacing its top two defensive backs in Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson. Further complicating matters, the Vols find themselves extremely short-handed at the cornerback position heading into spring camp with top contenders Brandon Turnage, Kamal Hadden and De’Shawn Rucker all unavailable due to injury. Returning starter Warren Burrell could also miss out on spring practice (or be limited at best).
That’s bad news for a group that needs all the reps it can get before kicking off the 2022 season. The silver lining is that it opens the door for some of Tennessee’s younger cornerbacks to get some valuable experience this spring, which should help build depth in the long run.
Junior college transfer Desmond "Dee" Williams is expected to feature prominently at one of the cornerback spots this spring. The No. 2-ranked JUCO cornerback in the '22 recruiting cycle led his peers during the 2021 season with seven interceptions and ranked second nationally with 14 pass breakups. Christian Charles, Doneiko Slaughter and Tyus Fields are a few other names looking to carve out bigger roles this spring. Safeties Trevon Flowers and Tamarion McDonald may get long looks at cornerback this spring as well.
The competition at cornerback won’t truly heat up until fall camp with the healthy return of Burrell, Turnage, Hadden and Rucker. Georgia Tech transfer Wesley Walker will make his way to campus this summer as well, along with incoming freshman cornerback Christian Harrison. Tennessee also will explore additional options at cornerback via the transfer portal.
4. Offensive line
Tennessee returns four starters along an offensive line that played a key role in the Vols breaking eight single-season school records on offense last season. However, there’s also plenty of room for improvement for a group that was largely responsible for surrendering 44 sacks in 2021 — the most in the SEC. Fortunately, star quarterback Hendon Hooker managed to make it through the ‘21 campaign largely unscathed, but pass protection will most definitely be a major point of emphasis for offensive line coach Glen Elarbee this spring. It will be critical for the O-line to take a step forward in order to keep Hooker upright and out of harm's way next season.
The Vols also are tasked with replacing their best offensive lineman from a season ago in All-SEC right tackle Cade Mays. The competition for the vacant right tackle spot should be among the more intriguing position battles this spring. The top candidates vying for the starting nod include Florida transfer Gerald Mincey, former JUCO transfer Jeremiah Crawford, and former walk-on Dayne Davis. Another big point of emphasis for Tennessee this spring will be bolstering depth along the offensive line. Ollie Lane, Kingston Harris, James Robinson, Jackson Lampley, William Parker, RJ Perry and Addison Nichols are among the top contenders looking to make a move up the depth chart this spring.
One of the more exciting aspects of spring practice is getting the first look at the newest additions. Tennessee will feature a total of 13 early enrollees set to compete this spring. The most notable newcomers on the offensive side of the football this spring are running back Justin Williams, quarterback Tayven Jackson and offensive lineman Addison Nichols — all highly touted 4-star recruits. Williams is expected to make a strong push for playing time at running back, while Jackson and Nichols should draw plenty of eyeballs this spring within their respective position groups. The Vols also have four talented newcomers set to compete for playing time at wide receiver in Kaleb Webb, Marquarius White, Chas Nimrod and Cameron Miller.
Defensively, the aforementioned Desmond Williams should see plenty of time at cornerback. Four-star Tyre West will contend for playing time along the defensive line, along with fellow freshman defensive lineman Jordan Phillips. Linebacker Elijah Herring is another worth keeping tabs on. It will be interesting to see which of these talented newcomers can make an impact this spring.
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.