The Tennessee Volunteers are more than eager to hit the reset button and put the worst season in school history behind them. That opportunity has arrived, as the Vols get set to embark on the first spring practice of the Jeremy Pruitt era Monday in Knoxville. But that’s not to say that the new chapter of Tennessee football doesn’t have a long road ahead.
The Vols still have plenty question marks that need to be addressed. That will make for a challenging spring for the Volunteers and their first-year head coach. But the hope is that a critical spring camp will go a long way in providing some answers prior to the kickoff of Tennessee’s annual Orange and White game on April 21.
5 Storylines to Watch During Tennessee's Spring Practice
1. A lengthy "to-do" list
The Volunteers’ plate will be as full as any team in the nation this spring. Not only will the Tennessee players be tasked with processing a brand-new playbook, they will be making the difficult transition to new schemes on both sides of the football. And there could be a steep learning curve as the players acclimate to the on-field coaching styles of a new staff.
The coaches will have their work cut out for them as well. On top of installing the new schemes, Jeremy Pruitt and company have limited time to identify the players that best fit their system. Spring practice also will be the time for this staff to establish a new culture and lay the foundation that will determine the future direction of the program.
Sophomores Jarrett Guarantano and Will McBride will begin spring practice as the only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. The real competition at quarterback won’t heat up until the summer arrivals of graduate transfer Keller Chryst and freshman JT Shrout. Nevertheless, the quarterback position will draw plenty of intrigue this spring.
Not only will we have a chance to gauge the offseason progress of Guarantano and McBride, we will get an early glimpse at how well they make the transition from Butch Jones’ spread offense to an unfamiliar pro-style attack under new offensive coordinator Tyson Helton.
Guarantano and Chryst appear to be the early favorites to land the starting job this fall. Spring practice should give Guarantano a leg up. However, Chryst is already quite familiar with the type of offense Tennessee plans to run, going 11-2 as a starter in a similar pro-style offense at Stanford. So, it will be crucial for Guarantano to firmly establish himself in the new offense this spring.
3. Concerns linger on the offensive line
It’s almost hard to believe that Tennessee’s offensive line was widely regarded as its best and deepest position group at this same time last year. Unfortunately, injuries and attrition took a huge toll as the season unfolded. In a strange twist of fate, what was once considered Tennessee’s biggest strength, quickly became its biggest weakness, completely void of depth.
Similar concerns linger into spring practice. Tennessee’s top offensive lineman, All-SEC tackle Trey Smith, will miss spring with an undisclosed medical condition. Chance Hall, another proven performer at offensive tackle, also will miss spring camp following knee surgery. K’Rojhn Calbert will be limited this spring as he makes his way back from injury. That leaves Tennessee incredibly thin along the offensive line.
The silver lining is that it will provide younger offensive linemen such as Ryan Johnson, Riley Locklear and Jerome Carvin with a valuable opportunity to showcase their offseason progress under the new regime. That opportunity will be even more critical for junior offensive tackles Drew Richmond and Marcus Tatum, who have yet to meet lofty expectations up to this point.
4. Position changes
Pruitt has already announced that three players will begin the first seven practices this spring at new positions. Junior Tyler Byrd (above, right) will transition from wide receiver to the secondary. Fellow junior Carlin Fils-Aime will move from running back to cornerback. And redshirt sophomore Ja’Quain Blakely will shift from linebacker to tight end. It will be interesting to see if those players perform well enough to stick at their new positions.
But there are sure to be more position moves this spring, although probably not as drastic as those mentioned above. The shift from a base 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme under the direction of coordinator Kevin Sherrer will require a lot of experimentation among the players in Tennessee’s front seven this spring. Junior Darrell Taylor and redshirt freshman Ryan Thaxton are just two of the players expected to take on new roles on that side of the football, making the move from their customary defensive end positions to outside linebacker.
5. Help wanted at cornerback
Tennessee lost its top four options at cornerback from last season. That will make for one of the more interesting position battles for the Vols this spring. Junior cornerbacks Marquill Osborne and Baylen Buchanan, along with sophomore Shawn Shamburger are the most experienced among those competing. All three have shown flashes, but the consistency has not been there in the past.
The aforementioned Byrd is the most intriguing candidate. Byrd earned All-American honors as a defensive back out of high school. He has a skill set that should translate well to cornerback or safety. Second-year players Cheyenne Labruzza and Theo Jackson also were highly regarded defensive backs out of high school. Both are expected to be right in the thick of the competition. Terrell Bailey and Fils-Aime (making the switch from running back) round out a solid group of athletes competing for the vacant cornerback spots this spring. The competition appears to be wide open.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.