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Front Page - Monday, March 13, 2017

Vols need a good spring with best players gone

Quinten Dormady, above, has the most experience of the three quarterbacks vying to replace Joshua Dobbs, but many think freshman Jarrett Guarantano might have the edge. - Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

Butch Jones is about to embark on his most crucial of five seasons as Tennessee’s football coach, and it begins with spring practices starting Tuesday.

Jones is coming off back-to-back 9-4 seasons capped by bowl wins, but has fallen short of the SEC East Division title both years. He had the preseason favorite to win the East in 2016, and the previous year had a team with potential to win the division.

With new athletics director John Currie starting his job April 1, Jones is under some pressure to win in 2017. It’s no easy task. Not with the schedule. Not with the player turnover.

Tennessee lost its No. 1 quarterback and best offensive player, Joshua Dobbs, from the 2016 team, along with the No. 1 running back (Alvin Kamara), No. 1 receiver (Josh Malone), No. 1 pass rusher (end Derek Barnett), No. 1 linebacker (Jalen Reeves-Maybin), and No. 1 player in the secondary (cornerback Cameron Sutton). All have declared for the NFL Draft.

Reeves-Maybin missed most of 2016 with a shoulder injury, and Sutton missed six games with a foot injury, but Dobbs, Kamara, and Malone were a huge part of the 2016 offense. And Barnett, UT’s career sacks leader, departs along with UT’s second-best pass rusher from 2016, Corey Vereen, a senior last season.

Jones isn’t just looking for new starters at critical positions this spring. He’s trying to find cohesion among his coaching staff. There were six staff changes in the off-season, and that’s not including the hiring of a new strength and conditioning coach, Rock Gullickson.

Bob Shoop is back for his second season as defensive coordinator after a shaky debut with the Vols in 2016. Larry Scott was promoted from tight ends/special teams coordinator to offensive coordinator in January to replace Mike DeBord, who was expected to retire but took the coordinators job at Indiana.

Jones’ retooled staff appears to be an upgrade, but can an all-star staff get on the same page in short notice? Perhaps, that’s why Jones started spring practices later than normal this year – to allow the new-look staff more time to get acclimated.

Regardless, Jones has lots to figure out this spring. He won’t have the SEC East favorite this year, but can hardly afford to go a fifth year without winning the division. The equity he built with outgoing athletics director Dave Hart is gone. Currie might already have a short list.

Here are some things to watch as the Vols run through spring practices, which conclude April 22 with the DISH Orange & White game.

The quarterback race

All eyes will be on the Vols’ quarterback race between junior Quinten Dormady, sophomore Sheriron Jones and freshman Jarrett Guarantano, who enrolled in January.

While the starting job appears to be between Dormady and Guarantano, Butch Jones and new quarterbacks coach Mike Canales need to keep Sheriron Jones in the hunt.

Don’t look for Jones to announce a starting QB until well into the preseason – if not until game week of the Sept. 4 opener against Georgia Tech in Atlanta – in order to reduce the risk of an odd-man-out QB transfer this summer.

Dormady has the advantage in college game experience. He played in six games as a true freshman in 2015 and completed 13 of 22 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown without an interception. Last season, Dormady played in four games and completed 11 of 17 passes for 148 yards without a TD or interception.

Guarantano, 6-4 and 205 pounds, was rated the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback by 247Sports Composite last fall. He’s out of Bergen Catholic High in Oradell, New Jersey. He threw for 3,028 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushed for 523 yards and 12 touchdowns during his high school career. His father, James, was a star receiver for Rutgers from 1989-92 and was on the team when Butch Jones was a graduate assistant at Rutgers during the 1990-92 seasons.

While Dormady has more game experience, Guarantano looks to be a better fit for UT’s zone-read offense.

Sheriron Jones spent most of the 2016 season cheering for Dobbs, getting in one game against Tennessee Tech and completing his only pass for 2 yards. His status with the Vols was shaky after his redshirt season in 2015. He transferred to Colorado in January of 2016, but a month later transferred back to Tennessee.

Tennessee needs to go into 2017 with Guarantano, Dormady and Jones available. Other quarterbacks behind them are sophomore Zac Jancek, son of former UT defensive coordinator John Jancek, and freshman signee Will McBride, three-star quarterback from Clear Springs High in League City, Texas. McBride is an early enrollee and potential redshirt this fall.

Who runs with Kelly?

Junior John Kelly of Detroit moves into the No. 1 running back role with the departure of Kamara, who rushed for 596 yards and nine touchdowns last season as a junior.

The 5-9, 212-pound Kelly was the Vols’ second-leading rusher last year with 630 yards, had the team-best 6.4-yard average and ran for five TDs. Dobbs led the team with 831 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. When Jalen Hurd quit the team in mid-season, Kelly was a standout playing alongside Kamara.

Tennessee’s most experienced returning tailback is sophomore Carlin Fils-Aime, who played in seven games as a true freshman and ran for 58 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.

Freshman Ty Chandler of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy won’t arrive on campus until the summer but should contend for playing time in 2017. The 5-11, 190-pound ranks fifth in TSSAA history with 7,068 career rushing yards and second in career touchdowns with 107.

Tennessee has two other freshman tailbacks: three-star Trey Coleman (5-11, 215 pounds) of West Monroe (Louisiana) High and three-star Tim Jordan (6-0, 190) of Bartow High in Winter Haven, Florida. Both will arrive in the summer.

Trey Smith

Walt Wells takes over as UT’s offensive line coach and inherits the most experienced unit on the team with starters returning at every position. It should dominate in the spring against a depleted defensive front.

Big question this spring: Will offensive lineman Trey Smith of University School of Jackson be the impact player he’s expected to be?

Smith, UT’s only five-star recruit in the 2017 class, is a January enrollee and has already been praised by Butch Jones for his work in winter conditioning.

Wells said Smith will be able to handle the high expectations.

“There’s a lot of pressure on Trey, but he’s a young man that’s willing to take that,” Wells said. “He’s mature. He’s come in and worked well. I’m looking forward to seeing him compete.”

So are a lot of others.

Who replaces Malone?

Malone, of Station Camp High in Gallatin, led the Vols in catches (50), receiving yards (972), and TD catches (11) as a junior last season.

Who replaces those numbers? And those of Kamara (40 catches, 392 yards, four TDs)?

Junior Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman High will be Tennessee’s No. 1 receiver in 2017, and injury-prone Josh Smith of Christian Academy of Knoxville returns for his fifth season.

Jennings tied with Kamara for second on the team in catches (40) in 2016 and his 580 receiving yards and seven touchdowns were second on the team behind Malone.

Sophomore Tyler Byrd of Naples (Florida) High came to UT as a cornerback, moved to receiver in the 2016 fall camp and caught 15 passes for 209 yards (no touchdown) in 13 games.

New receivers coach Kevin Beard needs Byrd and several others in his group to take the next step, including sophomores Marquez Callaway and Latrell Williams. Callaway played in six games last season and had one catch for 13 yards. Williams never got on the field in 2016, primarily due to a nagging hamstring injury.

It’s a big spring for the receivers. Especially with a new QB throwing their way.

Hoke’s challenge

Brady Hoke, the most decorated new assistant at UT, inherits the biggest challenge this spring and fall: rebuilding a unit with the loss of Barnett, Vereen, LaTroy Lewis and Danny O’Brien. Lewis played in 12 games and had four starts at end and tackle as a senior last year, and O’Brien was a senior starting tackle who was kicked off the team six games into the season.

Hoke, who was head coach at Michigan (2011-14), San Diego State (2009-10), and Ball State (2003-08), will be working with an injury-riddled unit this spring. Fifth-year senior tackle Kendal Vickers, who started all 13 games, will be limited due to injury and offseason surgery, and others on the 2017 front likely are out most or all this spring: junior tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle and junior end Kyle Phillips.

Phillips and junior Jonathan Kongbo are projected starters at end in 2017 with Tuttle at a tackle, and they’ll need to make monstrous steps to help replace those gone from the 2016 unit.

Kongbo and Phillips both played some interior line in 2016 due to injuries, and will move back outside, if the Vols’ health permits.

Tuttle’s UT career has been plagued by two bad injuries – a broken ankle in 2015 and multiple torn ligaments in his knee in 2016. Reports have Tuttle not returning to practice until August or later, and if so, he could be redshirted.

Phillips, who played at Nashville’s Hillsboro High and is the son of Tennessee State athletic director Teresa Phillips, is coming off a shoulder injury. McKenzie is coming off a torn pectoral.

Kongbo needs to have a big spring after an average first season at UT.

He was the No. 1 rated JUCO defensive end recruit out of Arizona Western Community College in 2015, and last season played in 13 games (two starts) and had 11 total tackles, three tackles for loss and one sack.

Others on the D-line can make an impression on Hoke this spring – junior tackle Quay Picou, senior tackle Alexis Johnson, redshirt sophomore end Darrell Taylor and freshman end Deandre Johnson, a January enrollee.

Don’t be surprised if UT’s defensive front doesn’t fare well against an experienced O-line. If anything, this spring is big for the projected starters to heal and their backups to get ready to be in the rotation.

Linebackers look

Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen is one of only two assistants left from Jones’ first UT staff in 2013 (the other is running backs coach Robert Gillespie).

Thigpen brings back an experienced group of linebackers, albeit without an NFL-caliber player like Reeves-Maybin, who started the first four games.

Senior Colton Jumper and junior Darrin Kirkland Jr., shared starts at middle linebacker in the Vols’ 4-2-5 scheme last season. Kirkland Jr. struggled with an ankle injury during the 2016 season, but still started seven games, including the bowl against Nebraska. He could be limited this spring.

Jumper, the former walk-on from Chattanooga’s Baylor School, started six games at middle linebacker and one at weak-side linebacker.

Other potential starters Thigpen will watch this spring are senior Elliott Berry (four starts) and senior Cortez McDowell (four starts, including the bowl game).

Daniel Bituli, a sophomore linebacker from Antioch’s Nashville Christian School, has a chance to be a factor, too.

Who’s in the back?

Charlton Warren gets his first look as the new secondary coach this spring, taking over for Willie Martinez, who was let go after four seasons at Tennessee.

Warren needs to pinpoint solid cornerbacks, and that might not be easy. Sutton wasn’t up to par last season after the injury. He struggled along with the fellow corners Malik Foreman (a senior in 2016), senior Emmanuel Moseley, sophomore Baylen Buchanan and senior Justin Martin.

All have a chance to move up the depth chart this spring, along with sophomore Marquill Osborne.

Unlike the cornerbacks, the safeties are solid. Senior Todd Kelly Jr. of Knoxville Webb returns as the starter at strong safety after leading the Vols in tackles (71) and tied for first in interceptions (two).

Junior free safety Micah Abernathy started 10 games at free safety and was second on the team in tackles (69) and also had two interceptions. Junior Rashaan Gaulden of Independence High in Spring Hill is back as the starter at nickel; he was third on the team in tackles (68) last season. Sophomore Nigel Warrior and senior Evan Berry also are in the safety rotation.

While the secondary returns starting experience, it was vulnerable to big plays in 2016. Warren’s job is to fix the problem Martinez couldn’t solve, and it starts with the first spring practice Tuesday.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.