Seth Stokes at Gridiron Now takes a trip to Rocky Top country to see what kind of passing attack the Vols may or may not have next season.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Spring practice begins Monday for Tennessee, and given the off-field turmoil, on-field activities can’t get here fast enough for Butch Jones and the Vols. This is a big spring for Tennessee as it appears poised to make a run at the SEC championship.
The big battle to watch on offense is at left tackle. Kyler Kerbyson is gone, so will redshirt freshman Drew Richmond take over or will junior Brett Kendrick be the man to protect Josh Dobbs’ blind side?
Priority One: Getting consistent production from the passing game. Tennessee has a talent at receiver, yet the passing game has been average at best for a couple of seasons now. If the Vols want to get to the next level of success, the offense has to be able to push the ball downfield. Whether it’s the receivers, issues with Dobbs or a lack of protection, these issues must be fixed for Tennessee to reach its goals in 2016.
Strongest position: Running back – and it’s not close. The Vols have two NFL backs on the roster in juniors Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Each brings a different set of skills to the table, and they work well as a one-two punch. Combine them with Dobbs’ ability to run, and the potential exists for a devastating rushing attack. There also is a decent third option at tailback in sophomore John Kelly, who ran hard and showed flashes of promise when given the chance in 2015.
Weakest position: Wide receiver. There is talent – or at least impressive high school recruiting rankings. But outside of junior Josh Smith, the productivity of the returning players has left a lot to be desired. All eyes will be on them in the spring to see if a leader emerges and if, as a group, they can become more consistent. Junior college transfer Jeff George, who enrolled in January, should provide a boost. George (6 feet 6, 200 pounds) has great size and length, is a long strider who may be able to stretch the field and, judging by his film, has really good hands.
Player most on the spot, offense: OT Brett Kendrick. There are a couple of players who fit, but let’s go with Kendrick, a junior who has fought injury and inconsistency. Fans clamored for him in 2014, when UT had all sorts of offensive line woes. He was given some opportunities and, to the untrained eye, appeared to hold his own, yet he didn’t get consistent playing time. Last season, he started five games and played in seven; he was plagued by nagging injuries down the stretch that kept him off the field. He will be competing at left tackle with redshirt freshman Drew Richardson. Kendrick has the experience, but can he show enough consistency to hold off the talented youngster?
Player most on the spot, defense: S Todd Kelly Jr. Most have him penciled in as a surefire starter, replacing Brian Randolph. Kelly played a lot of football in his first two seasons but couldn’t lock down a starting role. Now that Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil are gone, he is the veteran voice at safety. It’s his spot to lose.
The clock is ticking on: WR Josh Malone. The former four-star prospect is entering his third spring with the program and has not lived up to his potential. While there have been flashes here and there, rarely have they came against an opponent of consequence. He has 54 career receptions, with 33 coming in 16 career SEC games. Each season, fans have seen him dominate the spring game, yet disappear for much of the season. Now, along with Smith, Malone is the elder statesman of the wide receiver group. He has a lot of competition from hungry young receivers, so he will need a big spring and fall camp to keep his starting role.
Newcomer to watch: WR Jeff George. George is a JC transfer who enrolled in January. JC transfers typically aren’t brought in to sit, and George – who starred at Dodge City (Kan.) CC — is not an exception. The coaches will give him every opportunity this spring to prove he can be an alpha at receiver. The Vols desperately need a consistent deep threat and George could be the answer.
Notable players who will miss spring practice: Two key sophomores – DT Shy Tuttle and DE Kyle Phillips – will miss the spring as they recover from surgeries. Tuttle suffered a nasty leg injury against Georgia, and Phillips had shoulder surgery.
First game: September 3, vs. Appalachian State.