The Tennessee Volunteers entered their 2015 campaign with big expectations and high hopes. While they ultimately fell short of winning the SEC East, a strong finish to the season, culminating in a dominant 45-6 victory over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, put the finishing touches on a 9-4 record and a final ranking of 22nd in the AP poll.
The future appears to be even more promising for 2016 with preseason expectations surging to a fever pitch. The Volunteers return 18 starters from a talent-rich team that won seven of its final eight games. The only loss during that stretch coming in a nail biter against eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Optimism is certainly in the air in Knoxville as the Vols get their 2016 spring camp underway, and with good reason.
5 Storylines to Watch in Tennessee’s Spring Practice
1. Bob Shoop
One of the biggest storylines for the Vols this offseason was the hiring of Shoop, a highly touted defensive coordinator, after parting ways with John Jancek. So, it stands to reason that Shoop will be under the microscope as he makes his Tennessee debut this spring. The hope is that spring camp will provide the Volunteer faithful with some insight into Shoop’s defensive philosophies, and how they may differ from the concepts utilized by Jancek. Spring camp also will serve as a preview for how Shoop plans to utilize his personnel for the upcoming season. Most importantly, we should all get a better idea of how the Vol players interact with and respond to their new defensive coordinator.
The one thing that we already know for sure is that Tennessee will continue to run a 4-3 base scheme under Shoop. You also should expect him to showcase a more aggressive style of play. That was Shoop’s m.o. during previous stops at Vanderbilt and Penn State, a philosophy that helped his defenses rank near the top nationally in producing sacks and turnovers. There is no doubt that Shoop brings a very successful track record to the table, and it will certainly be interesting to see some of the new wrinkles that he unveils in the coming weeks.
2. Improvement in the passing game?
There is no question that the Vols’ biggest need for improvement heading into spring camp lies in the passing game. While Tennessee fared decently with their short passing attack in 2015, the inability to connect on intermediate and deep routes routinely plagued the offense throughout the season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs had just three completions of 40 yards or more last season.
Dobbs’ downfield accuracy or lack thereof is probably the biggest area of concern heading into spring camp, but receiver route running, receivers creating separation and pass protection are all areas that require serious attention. Fortunately, the Vols have pretty much every key contributor back from last season. Experienced players such as Josh Malone, Josh Smith, Jauan Jennings, Ethan Wolf and Jason Croom (recently moved to TE) need to show up as consistent playmakers for this offense to take the next step. All of them have skill sets favorable for making that a possibility.
Speedy slot man Vincent Perry is a player with big upside that should pay dividends for the offense in 2016, and junior college wide receiver Jeff George is a new addition worth keeping an eye on this spring. Sophomore wideout Preston Williams may have the most potential for a breakout season in 2016. Williams has already shown flashes as a legitimate deep threat during limited action last season. If the Vols have any hope of reaching a championship level in 2016, improving the downfield passing game is critical and that starts in spring camp.
3. Who will win the all-important starting LT job?
There are a few candidates in the running for one of the only offensive positions up for grabs, the all-important starting left tackle job. Drew Richmond appears to be a slight favorite to win the spot heading into spring camp, but the redshirt freshman’s lack of experience could work against him as the race heats up. Junior Brett Kendrick is another option for the vacant position, although he will likely start out this spring at right tackle, his natural position.
However, if an unproven Richmond isn’t ready to take the reins, Kendrick would probably be the best option to slide over, especially when you consider that freshman All-American Chance Hall is more than capable of manning the right tackle spot upon his return from injury in the fall. Dontavius Blair is another player that will be competing for the open spot. The highly sought-after JUCO prospect was once considered a shoe-in to take over at left tackle upon his arrival in Knoxville two seasons ago, but after falling well short of expectations, Blair is considered a long shot at best to win the job in his final year on the hill. It is definitely a battle worth keeping tabs on as spring camp progresses.
4. Sorting out the secondary
The Vols have plenty of talent returning in the secondary for 2016, and spring camp should go a long way in determining which of those players have the upper hand for playing time this coming fall. Three-year-starter Cameron Sutton is a definite lock to start at one of the cornerback positions, and junior Todd Kelly appears to be a safe bet to start at the strong safety spot. Otherwise, the field is somewhat open.
Junior Justin Martin played well down the stretch last season and will likely get first crack at the cornerback spot opposite Sutton. Martin will face stiff competition this spring from fellow cornerbacks Emmanuel Moseley, Darrell Miller, Micah Abernathy, JUCO transfer D.J. Henderson and highly touted early enrollee Marquill Osborne.
The nickel spot will likely go to incumbent Malik Foreman to begin spring camp, but the senior will have to beat out all of the aforementioned players in order to retain his position at spring's end. Free safety will be up for grabs as well with junior Evan Berry and redshirt sophomore Rashaan Gaulden battling for the honors. Stephen Griffin, who typically plays strong safety, could get a look at free safety as well, along with Abernathy and Henderson. It should be entertaining to see who Shoop moves around and ultimately chooses to make up his depth chart in the secondary as spring progresses. It should be even more entertaining in the fall with the arrival of several high-caliber freshmen who will further add to the competition.
5. Staying focused on the goals at hand
It is no secret that the University of Tennessee, and more specifically its football program have had a rough couple of months. From lawsuits to player arrests to serious allegations being made against head coach Butch Jones, the focus has been less about a promising upcoming football season, and more about the issues off of the football field during the winter months.
While the Tennessee coaches and players will claim that the issues plaguing the program will have no bearing on their performance on the field, these issues will serve as an unwelcome distraction at the very least, especially with the media there to remind them at every opportunity. That being said, it is possible that all of the off-the-field issues could also serve to further unite the program as Jones has already suggested. Hopefully, that is in fact the case. The Vols have lofty goals for the 2016 season, and regardless of what happens with the off-the-field issues, their focus on football is paramount to their success. It will be interesting to see if these issues actually become a distraction or serve as a source of solidarity as spring camp progresses. It may even become both.
Pre-Spring Tennessee Outlook in the SEC
The Volunteers have shown improvement under Butch Jones each and every season since he became the head coach at Tennessee in 2013 and ‘16 appears to hold a similar fate. The Vols return an abundance of talent in all three phases of the game, and for the first time in Jones’ tenure, Tennessee has the depth and fire power to make a legitimate championship run. The team also has plenty of momentum to build on after closing out 2015 in strong fashion. Tennessee will not only be the favorite to win the SEC East in 2016, a reasonable case can be made for the Vols to make a run for a spot in the College Football Playoff and possibly even a shot at a national championship. Off-the-field issues aside, Tennessee football is now as healthy and relevant as it has been in a decade.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McVey is a diehard Tennessee Volunteers' fan who loves singing "Rocky Top" every opportunity he gets. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.