The Tennessee Volunteers entered spring practice in 2016 with lofty aspirations and even bigger expectations. The pressure factor was high, but question marks were few and far between for a star-studded Tennessee roster. While an injury-plagued season ultimately failed to live up to expectations, 2016 wasn’t a complete failure for the Vols. They managed to cap off a 9-4 season with their third consecutive bowl victory. And highlight wins against Florida, Georgia and Virginia Tech helped to offset embarrassing losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt to some extent.
While the hype surrounding the program isn’t at the same fevered pitch heading into spring practice in 2017, the pressure to succeed has never been higher for fifth-year head coach Butch Jones. And unlike 2016, the Volunteers embark on spring practice with more questions than answers. The cupboard is far from bare on Rocky Top in terms of potential talent. However, there are some really big shoes to fill and much of that potential talent is still unproven. Adding to the uncertainty is an overhauled Tennessee coaching staff. This spring probably won’t unlock all of the answers, but it should provide some much-needed insight on the current state of Tennessee football and the season to come.
5 Storylines to Watch in Tennessee’s Spring Practice
1. The All-Important Quarterback Battle
The most pressing issue on the agenda for the Volunteers this spring will be to start the process of finding Joshua Dobbs’ successor at quarterback. That’s no easy task considering everything that Dobbs has meant to this program over the last four years. The primary contenders to land the starting job are junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. Redshirt sophomore Sheriron Jones and true freshman Will McBride also could factor into the mix with a good showing this spring.
Dormady, a prototypical pocket-passer, should have a leg up on the competition to begin spring drills. He is the only quarterback on the roster with actual game experience, albeit marginal, serving as the primary backup to Dobbs in each of the last two seasons. Guarantano has never taken a meaningful snap at the collegiate level. However, the former No. 1-ranked high school dual-threat quarterback could have an edge of his own. The read-option has been a crucial part of Tennessee’s identity on offense with Butch Jones in charge, and Guarantano appears to be the best fit in that regard. That said, it will ultimately come down to which quarterback shows the best command of the offense and most promise in the passing game. This is a battle that could linger all the way into the season.
2. New-Look Coaching Staff
Jones didn’t completely clean house this offseason, but the Tennessee coaching staff did undergo a major overhaul with six big changes. Perhaps the biggest move in the offseason was the promotion of tight ends coach Larry Scott to offensive coordinator. It’s a move that has drawn some criticism, which isn’t unreasonable considering Scott has no prior experience in that role. While all of the new coaches will be under the microscope this spring, no one will be scrutinized more than Scott. It should be interesting to see if he brings any of his own nuances to the Volunteer offense this spring.
All in all, most of the staff changes have been well received and considered to be upgrades. A fresh start for coaches and players alike could be exactly what Tennessee needs right now as well. However, any time a staff undergoes wholesale changes, there is always some cause for concern. Continuity can be a critical component to a team’s success, and the Vols enter 2017 with little of it in regard to the coaching staff.
3. Strength and Conditioning
One area of contention surrounding the Tennessee football program last season was the lack of a true director of strength and conditioning following the firing of Dave Lawson. In fact, there are many who believe that it was the single biggest factor in the Vols’ failure to live up to expectations. There may actually be some merit to that theory as well. Tennessee was decimated by injury last season and clearly outmuscled by smaller teams at times. Both are issues that could be attributed to a deficiency in strength and conditioning.
One of the first orders of business in the offseason was to address the matter. The Volunteers did so by bringing in 16-year NFL veteran strength and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson. He is highly regarded as one of the best in the business. And the early reviews have been glowing. Gullickson’s presence is already said to be yielding positive results in the weight room and paying dividends with player conditioning. Spring practice will provide our first glimpse at the team’s offseason progression under Gullickson’s tutelage. Additionally, it should provide further insight to help determine if those results are actually going to show up on the field. This could prove to be Jones’ best move of the offseason.
4. Replacing the Stars on Offense
The good news is that the Volunteers will be well represented at the upcoming NFL Draft for the first time in a while. The bad news is that leaves plenty of big shoes to fill on Rocky Top. Tennessee loses a huge chunk of its offensive production from last season with the departures of Dobbs as well as RB Alvin Kamara, WR Josh Malone and RB Jalen Hurd.
The Vols’ offensive line returns almost completely intact which helps tremendously. And players such as RB John Kelly, WR Jauan Jennings, WR Josh Smith and TE Ethan Wolf have the experience and upside to help fill the void. But there will be a lot of new faces at the skill positions, particularly at wide receiver. This should be where Tennessee’s efforts on the recruiting trail pay off. This spring should go a long way in helping the coaching staff identify those young players that can step up and have a positive impact this season, as well establish quality depth.
5. Replacing the Stars on Defense
Tennessee may be even more hard-pressed to fill the voids left behind on defense. Most notably, the departures of Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen at defensive end. Barnett and Vereen accounted for 20 of Tennessee’s 31 sacks last season. While there are several promising candidates on the roster, it will be a tall order to replace the Vols’ all-time sack leader and a skilled pass rusher in Vereen. Jonathan Kongbo, Kyle Phillips, Darell Taylor and Deandre Johnson will get the first opportunity this spring.
Tennessee also must find a replacement for its top linebacker in Jalen Reeves-Maybin. He was injured for the majority of the 2016 season and his absence proved to be a major blow to the Vol defense. It will be critical to find a suitable replacement this spring, something that never really materialized last season, in part due to a rash of injuries that decimated the depth chart at linebacker. Both outside linebacker positions should be up for grabs this spring, including the spot vacated by Reeves-Maybin. Cortez McDowell, Daniel Bituli, Dillon Bates and Elliott Berry are just a few candidates worth keeping tabs on this spring.
Additionally, the Volunteers must replace their best cornerback and punt returner in Cameron Sutton. They have plenty of experienced players returning at cornerback, as well as some talented newcomers that will compete for the vacant spot. Emmanuel Moseley, Justin Martin, Rashaan Gaulden, Baylen Buchanan and Marquill Osborne are all players of note that will be vying for valuable reps at cornerback this spring. It will be intriguing to see how these players progress under new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren. It will also be interesting to see how the depth chart at defensive back unfolds during the spring.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Tennessee in the SEC
The Volunteers enter spring practice as kind of an enigma. The roster features more upper classmen than it has in years, and on paper, this is still one of the most talent-rich teams in the SEC East. The problem is that much of that potential talent is still unproven at this point. There’s also the matter of replacing so many valuable players, most notably Joshua Dobbs at quarterback. You add in all of the changes to the coaching staff, and it’s difficult to gauge the current condition of Tennessee football heading into the spring. The next few weeks should provide some answers.
If the Vols can remain reasonably healthy, and a solid replacement emerges at quarterback, there is no reason to believe that Tennessee can’t be a threat to compete for a division title. But as of now, the phrase “cautiously optimistic” best describes the way to feel about the Vols’ prospects in the SEC for 2017.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.