Observations, notes and analysis from Vols open football practice from Vince’s View

Vols WR Walker Merrill / Credit: WVLT

By Vince Ferrara / @VinceSports

It was great to see a start-to-finish football practice of any kind again. We appreciate Josh Heupel and Tennessee for letting everyone into Neyland Stadium to see it after all of the restrictions from COVID-19 since Spring of 2020.

In the latest post from my blog “Vince’s View” here on 991TheSportsAnimal.com, I’m sharing views, opinions and notes from what I saw during the almost three hours of UT football practice viewing, as well as where each position group stands as a whole. These are my opinions, not what anyone else may have said or written.

Watch some our video footage from the open practice HERE.

Players we did not see practicing (excluding six suspended players): RB Jabari Small, DL Omari Thomas, LB Jeremy Banks, LB Roman Harrison, DL LaTrell Bumphus and OL Riley Locklear

Players in black non-contact jerseys, but doing some drills included: DB Doneiko Slaughter, RB Len’Neth Whitehead and WR Jimmy Holiday

Other partial participants that did not practice in team situations: DE/OLB Tyler Baron, RB Tiyon Evans, WR Jalin Hyatt and DL Ja’Quain Blakely

Offense vs. Defense in Team Reps
The offense was much, much better than the defense in all team settings. I don’t recall any negative plays created by this undermanned defense. I only saw one turnover, a sweet over-the-shoulder interception by true freshman DB Christian Charles. It was on a Brian Maurer deep ball that looked like it was going to be complete until Charles hustled and laid out for it, much to the excitement of his defensive teammates. That was maybe the single best catch of the day.

The tempo of the offense, I’m sure, is still an adjustment for all the defensive players, returning and new, but I think because of the personnel, they would struggle versus most offenses based as it sits right now. This new coaching staff has to find ways to develop some individual talent under the tough circumstances.

Quarterbacks Overall
I’d describe the unit as ok, but inconsistent. The overall play at this position, looks like it could be a little better than the 2020 season, but that’s not a high bar of success to improve on. I think the system, the promising skill talent and an apparent improvement in redshirt sophomore Brian Maurer should produce better offensive numbers. Each of the three QBs is a little different, but the group as whole, looks like it can manage things efficiently and at least protect the football. I don’t think there’s a star in this group though. We haven’t seen suspended freshman Kaidon Salter yet, so maybe he is. We’ll see. The QBs did quick-release drills, avoiding dropping heavy bags in the pocket drills and on the run throwing drills (including across the body) more than I can remember the previous staff doing when we were able to see practices in 2019.

Brian Maurer
I had heard that Maurer had looked the best in the closed door portions of practice entering Saturday. What I saw was consistent with that. He looks more confident and relaxed. Maybe this offense and having been recruited by Josh Heupel at UCF as a kid in nearby Ocala, has given Maurer a new sense of opportunity. Maurer is the quickest in his release, has the best escape-ability and has a popular alpha personality you like at that position. He led most of the individual drills and got a fair amount of first team work in team situations. He missed on numerous throws in redzone situations vs. defenders. There were two in a row where he didn’t have appropriate loft on fade routes where he threw them both too much on a line falling incomplete.

Maurer seems to elevate his play in 11-on-11 settings. On one play, he bobbled a snap that popped above his head, he re-gathered, stepped-up in the pocket, eluded the rush by sliding to the right and shooting a ¾ arm slot throw into the endzone for a TD to Princeton Fant. On another play, he scrambled to his right and gunned a TD pass on the run to Ramel Keyton. Maurer also lofted a pretty 30-yard pass in the bucket to true freshman WR Walker Merrill who made an impressive over the shoulder catch against Doneiko Slaughter in 7-on-7 work.

Hendon Hooker
Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker looks like the safest of the quarterbacks. He’s very fundamental, mechanical and tight in his base. He did a nice job of getting off 3 snaps of the tempo offense in 26 total seconds. When you consider the time of the play, getting everyone back from downfield and in a legal formation, that’s impressive. It was an example of the super-fast tempo this offense wants to operate in. He ran with the 1s plenty. He also was accurate on some redzone throws and sailed some as well. Hooker’s nicest throw may have been in 7-on7 where he hit Velus Jones Jr on about a 30-yard go route.

Harrison Bailey
Sophomore Harrison Bailey moved the offense against the undermanned defenses he faced, but they were more check-down throws and leaning on a successful running game. He, like all the QBs, made some solid redzone throws. However, I thought he was the least accurate of the three, not just in completion percentage but in hitting receivers in-stride and in the proper spots. He overthrew receivers, threw some in the dirt and threw behind guys numerous times. I didn’t see a high 4-star QB that’s coming off a freshman season of playing and starting that should have made the sophomore jump. I saw a guy just blended in rather than standing out, like he was expected to. We’ll see if that will develop before the season, but he appeared third-best to me in this setting.

Running Backs
I really liked what I saw from big 6’5, 227 back Dee Beckwith. He bulled over defenders on runs while still showing elusiveness. He has good waist bend to still be effective and not take too much punishment. VFL Will Overstreet brought-up a great point when we were discussing Beckwith on The Sports Source last Sunday on WATE. As a big former receiver now at RB, Beckwith gives you the option to motion him out into a mismatch on either a slower linebacker or a smaller defensive back. UT did motion their single backs to a 5-wide look several times Saturday.

I also like what I’ve seen all camp from true freshman Jaylen Wright. The full practice enforced that for me. He’s fast and could be the breakaway running back among the group. JUCO newcomer Tiyon Evans has massive legs and a powerful frame. He did not take part in team drills. Jabari Small, arguably the most complimented player on the team heading into the open practice, did not practice. Tee Hodge was probably the 3rd back among the scholarship backs in team drills. Len’Neth Whitehead is intriguing as well as another big back, but he continues to be limited.

Every scholarship running back is over 200 pounds. There are numerous power running options in this group that fits Heupel’s offense. Right now, I think it is a good collection of running back by committee.

Wide Receivers
I like the talent and potential in this group as well. Cedric Tillman made a really nice catch on a fade route in the endzone leaping over CB Kenneth George Jr. The two slapped hands afterwards showing respect. Tillman has had a really nice camp. Velus Jones Jr. had a sweet juke move to get pass his CB in press coverage drills. Jones worked on the outside at WR much of practice along with Tillman, Ramel Keyton and freshman Andison Coby. Former QB Jimmy Calloway looked like a smooth natural hands catcher, working a lot from the slot, making some grabs look easy, although he did have two drops. I liked what I saw from in-state true freshman Walker Merrill. He had the highlight catch from Maurer I mentioned earlier and just looked smooth and precise in his routes. He did have to get repositioned a few times when lining-up, but that’s to be expected. There are a number of guys like Jalin Hyatt and former QB Jimmy Holiday and Malachi Wideman that we’re waiting for them to either get back to full strength or play to their potential.

Offensive Line
Here are how some of the OLs lined-up in some team drills.

LT Cade Mays
LG Jerome Carvin
C Cooper Mays
RG Jackson Lampley
RT Darnell Wrigley

LT Dayne Davis
LG Jerome Carvin
C Cooper Mays
RG Jackson Lampley
RT Cade Mays

LT K’Rohjn Calbert
LG Kingston Harris
C Ollie Lane
RG Javontez Spraggins
RT RJ Perry

LT James Parsons (walk-on)
LG Parker Ball (walk-on)
C Jacob Brigman (walk-on)
RG Chris Akporoghene
RT William Parker

This group has had plenty of position shifting, with more likely to come. Much like the D-line, there has to be more development of players than there was last season, if this team is going to get some things done on offense this year. Versus UT’s defense, it was no problem all day for all the units and combinations. I think that speaks to the defense though, more than promise about this group. On one bend and strike drill with contact on a fellow-OL teammate, Jackson Lampley led with his helmet which angered RJ Perry, who shoved him afterwards. Perry took the blow to his rib area and was holding it due to obvious pain. It wasn’t serious, just interesting to watch. Gotta keep your head-up for everybody’s safety.

Tight Ends
It was good to see Austin Pope, who missed last season with a back injury, participating, split-out wide often and catching passes. He made a sweet grab for a TD in redzone work on a corner route. With UT showing 4 and 5 wides, you saw Pope, Princeton Fant and Jacob Warren all split-out wide and able to get out into pass routes, Freshman Miles Campbell is a big body that I didn’t see as much of later in practice. There were a few instances of a standard hand-down tight end along with a second tight end at H-back on the opposite wing together. This is a very small group.

Defense Line
I thought they lined-up like last season a decent amount at practice, 3 down linemen and a stand-up fourth DE/OLB hybrid right at the line as well. The bright spots of the defense are at that hybrid position with JUCO newcomer Byron Young, sophomore Bryson Eason and sophomore Tyler Baron, who did not do any team drills. The defensive line was not effective at all at practice. They don’t even look explosive or fundamentally sound in individual drills. This is a huge concern area with this football team. There doesn’t appear to be a difference-maker in site on this roster, unless someone blossoms that we haven’t seen so far.

With suspensions and injuries this is an insanely thin group that’s relied on walk-ons, former walk-ons and a long snapper to fill spots in team settings. I’m not sure any of the players that are out would make a huge difference, which makes the situation even more alarming. That’s why this is a high target position to try and address in the transfer portal, even though that’s not the easiest position to come in and prosper in quickly.

Defensive Backs
The 1s at CB were Alontae Taylor, Kenneth George Jr and Warren Burrell. Those guys are solid but not elite. Tyus Fields and Doneiko Slaughter saw some time at CB also. There’s experience at safety and Star CB, but again, it’s capped at solid and they’re probably not fast enough, collectively. There was one play where they had to pause the snap because the defense was short a CB on the field until Tyus Fields ran out there.

Special Teams
There’s no doubt that Paxton Brooks is the punter. He had some blasted long punts during practice. He did have one really short line drive punt that I saw, but was good overall. He’s a big guy that’s always acting like a QB or a WR in down time. Remember, we saw him throw some passes last season. In fact, he had as many completions as Brian Maurer did in 2020, two. USC transfer Chase McGrath was slightly more accurate than walk-on Toby Wilson in field goal attempts. The three guys fielding punts were Jalin Hyatt, Jimmy Holiday and Jimmy Calloway. Those are all intriguing options. I did not see a dropped kick when watching them.

Josh Heupel is pretty low key at practice. He watches and then sometimes calmly gives directions to players or groups, but you don’t hear him yelling and screaming like Jeremy Pruitt. OC Alex Golesh was the most interesting to watch coach. He is a bundle of energy, running in and out of formations to fix things and even playing the role of defender in some drills against his guys. QB Coach Joey Halzle was constantly coaching and correcting mechanics and techniques. Bailey was getting corrected by him most often. DL coach Rodney Garner is the loudest voice at practices with his yelling and correcting style.

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