By: Eric Cain / @_Cainer
Tennessee hits the practice field Tuesday afternoon for the first of 14 spring football practices over the next five weeks leading up to the Orange & White game on April 18.
The Vols are coming off a strong finish to the 2019 campaign where the team reeled off six-consecutive wins and a fourth quarter, come-from-behind victory in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl against Indiana on January 2.
Jeremy Pruitt capped his best recruiting class as Tennessee head coach as well – finishing inside the top-10 in both Rivals and 247 Sports – and brought home the one that got away in former Georgia and Knoxville Catholic offensive lineman Cade Mays.
There’s a lot to be excited about if you’re a Tennessee fan.
The spring session is what I like to call the ‘time of opportunity.’ Numbers are diminished with offseason injuries and only four of the 23 signees for the Class of 2020 enrolled for the spring semester. There are reps to be had and a chance for guys to climb up the ranks and enter fall camp in good position.
Here are my five things to look for in Tennessee’s 2020 spring football practice.
No. 5 – Who is here / Who is not
Like I mentioned earlier, numbers will be limited.
We already know a pair of sophomores in offensive lineman Wanya Morris and linebacker Quavaris Crouch will be out while recovering from offseason surgeries. Incoming freshman offensive lineman Cooper Mays was seen with a boot and scooter at Saturday’s Tennessee basketball game.
Defensive lineman Darrell Middleton was arrested two weeks ago on two misdemeanors of domestic assault and public intoxication. Redshirt-sophomore defensive back Brandon Davis was reportedly shot in the leg Saturday night and treated for non-life threatening injuries.
What are their statuses? Not only for the short-term but long-term?
My guess is there will probably be more players not suited up due to illness, injuries, etc. There always is, and, it’s the offseason mind you.
Jeremy Pruitt will be made available to answer any questions the media has following Tuesday’s practice.
No. 4 – The Quarterbacks
This would probably be at the top of your list.
It is for many – just not mine. The quarterback is the sexy position and the most important position on the football field. I get all of that. But to me, it’s pretty standard right now.
Senior Jarrett Guarantano will come in as the starting quarterback this spring. He’s earned it after his rebound in the second half of the season, and quite frankly, who else? Brian Maurer needs a lot more polishing. As does J.T. Shroutt. Even walk-on Kasim Hill.
But everyone wants to talk about the freshmen gunslingers – primarily, five-star Harrison Bailey.
Bailey has been hyped quite a bit and I believe he has the potential to be a really good quarterback in this conference. But the dude should still be in high school right now. Give him some time and don’t put the weight of the world on his shoulders day one. Let him take his lumps, grow and develop.
Athlete Jimmy Holiday will start camp in the quarterback room, but with his athleticism and speed, the belief is he will be moved to receiver and be used as a potential returner on special teams. I’m excited to watch him develop.
Yes, the quarterbacks are important. And no, there is no clear-cut starter right now. There will be a quarterback competition. I just don’t see a starter being decided on right now in spring.
No. 3 – The Pass Catchers
This includes the wide receivers – who in my opinion hold the biggest question mark on the team – and tight ends.
Gone are the days of Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Domnick Wood-Anderson. Even Tyler Byrd, a solid depth option, is gone.
Tennessee needs players to step up in a big way on the outside. Josh Palmer will be charged with carrying the load. Ramel Keyton will be expected to make a leap in year two. Cedric Tillman’s workload should increase.
The Vols finally have DeAngelo Gibbs ready to contribute and have brought in Velus Jones Jr. – who was primarily used as a returner at Southern Cal. The return of Brandon Johnson, who led the team in receiving all the way back in 2017 (!!) is a welcomed return following a redshirt season.
Tennessee football hits the practice field this afternoon at 4 o'clock.
Jeremy Pruitt speaks to the media at 6:10.
I'll be on Sports Talk right after to recap both. @SportsRadioWNML
— Eric Cain (@_Cainer) March 10, 2020
There are some names there. But who emerges as trustworthy hands for whoever is throwing the football in the fall? Time to step up and find some options this spring.
As for tight ends, it’s pretty bleak.
Austin Pope returns but is crucial to the team’s rush offense. He’s not been known as a pass catching option thus far in his career. And then you have a local product in redshirt-sophomore Jacob Warren, redshirt-junior Princeton Fant and redshirt-freshmen Sean Brown and Jackson Lowe.
Tennessee missed on Darnell Washington this signing class and are recruiting the position hard for 2021 and beyond. But the Vols need someone in that group to really, really step up this spring.
Remember, help is on the way in Dee Beckwith (who could be used in several spots), Malachi Wideman, Jalin Hyatt and Jimmy Calloway.
No. 2 – The Offensive Line
The potential of having both Trey Smith and Cade Mays leading UT’s offensive line in 2020 is very real, but not certain as Cade’s battle for eligibility will likely linger on throughout the summer.
Tennessee must prepare for worst-case scenario.
Mays will practice this spring and can play every position on the offensive line – excluding center. But guys like Jerome Carvin, Riley Locklear and even Chris Akporoghene could be called on at right guard if Mays is not deemed eligible by fall.
Morris, again, is out this spring. In steps in veteran Jahmir Johnson at left tackle who can give you good time off the bench. The former junior college standout has seen time at both left guard and tackle during his time at Tennessee.
But the most intriguing battle this spring, in my eyes, is at right tackle with rising sophomore Darnell Wright and veteran K’Rojhn Calbert.
Wright has all the potential in the world and was tasked with being the primary right tackle for the Vols as a true freshman. He did okay, though, limped to the finish line with poor play that resulted from nagging injuries. Calbert has proven to be a guy Will Friend and Jim Chaney can count on to play the right side.
I think Calbert has a real opportunity to push Wright for that starting gig – though Wright has a higher ceiling, no doubt.
Expect more and more cross training this spring. It’s a staple of Will Friend and helped Tennessee last year in certain spots. This offensive line has great potential and was VASTLY improved from 2018.
Still needs to show a more consistent run-block, but Mays could certainly help in that regard.
No. 1 – The Inside Linebackers
Tennessee’s leading tackler each of the past three seasons is gone and will likely be on an NFL roster come fall. But rising sophomore Henry To’o To’o is a stud.
What the California native did as a true freshman in the SEC is almost unheard of. He was a mainstay for the Volunteers last season that spent the first two games without their senior leader in Daniel Bituli.
He even called the defense at certain points in time – as a TRUE FRESHMAN.
If you follow my work at all, albeit my blogs, podcasts or practice reports, you know I’m a big fan of Henry T. I’m ready to see him grow this offseason and take another step in the fall in terms of run/pass recognition and sideline-to-sideline speed.
But the real story I’m getting at here is of once highly-coveted four-star prospect J.J. Peterson – the jewel of Jeremy Pruitt’s first recruiting class.
There’s no sugar coating it. Peterson has been a let down since day one. He arrived late missing all his freshman fall camp. He showed up overweight, has dealt with academic issues and to me, really struggled with being motivated at times last year.
It’s put up or shut up time – do or die – now or never – whatever phrase you want to coin here. It’s that time for J.J. Peterson.
Tennessee has only FOUR inside linebackers on scholarship entering spring. Henry T and Peterson join the likes of Aaron Beasley and Solon Page.
Remember, Crouch is out this spring and will likely file into the inside out of pure need come fall. Incoming freshman Bryson Eason and Martavius French of Whitehaven are not here yet.
But all these guys are coming.
Peterson has a chance to really solidify himself as a two-deep player come fall if he has a strong spring. I don’t think the former four-star will ever live up to the hype the fanbase and some media members bestowed on him in the winter of 2018, but he still has a chance to help Tennessee.
SIDENOTE: This is about inside linebackers, but as for the edge players – numbers are short as well with Kivon Bennett, Deandre Johnson, Jordan Allen and Roman Harrison in camp. Someone must replace the production left behind of Darrell Taylor.
Also keep in mind, incoming freshmen Tyler Barron, Morven Joseph and others will be here in the fall.
You need several at this position you can count on for depth and personnel packages. You need two you can count on to start the game strong if Pruitt and Derrick Ansley elect to begin a game in the traditional 3-4.
But Tennessee runs its base out of nickel most of the time and that means one of the edge players exit while Shawn Shamburger or Baylen Buchanan (welcome back) enters the game in the secondary.
Spring isn’t everything. The whole squad isn’t here. You won’t get a real picture of what the roster could look like until fall camp.
But it’s the ‘time of opportunity’ and some Tennessee players could really benefit from it this spring.
Check out my podcast on the mater – Producing The Facts Podcast