There’s so much experience on this year’s Tennessee football team that there shouldn’t be as many position battles as there were in coach Butch Jones’ first three seasons on Rocky Top.
For instance, only one certain wide-open battle looms on offense, and even though there are a few positions up for grabs on the other side of the ball, it’s because there are several players with the ability to shine at those spots. Nine Vols made the recently announced All-SEC preseason teams.
That fact has a lot of media members, such as the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum, wondering aloud if big things may be in store this year:
In other words, the Volunteers should be in a good position at most every position in 2016.
Some spots such as nickelback have upperclassmen stalwarts in place such as Malik Foreman, but Jones’ recruiting spoils are pushing players. In that case, it’s Marquill Osborne who could stun. At slot receiver, pretty much everybody expects Josh Smith to win that race, but Marquez Callaway could make things interesting.
Still, the jobs of Foreman and Smith appear safe, so they didn’t make this list. Once fall camp starts, several position battles will grab plenty of headlines. Every spot is important, but there are some particularly vital areas that need shoring up.
If the Vols thrive in those spots, they’ve got a chance of having a special season. If they struggle, well, Tennessee’s high expectations could wind up falling flat.
Let’s take a look at four positions where Tennessee fans should pay close attention once Aug. 1 rolls around. Here are the four biggest battles that’ll be waged before the real tests take place in Neyland Stadium.
It may not be the most highly publicized position tussle this fall, but the one that’ll probably be the most fun will be waged on the back end of the secondary.
That’s where the Vols must replace departed senior starters Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil. While one of those positions appears to be locked down by junior part-time starter Todd Kelly Jr., the other is up for grabs.
And the reason it’s going to be so enjoyable to watch is because of all the talent UT has stockpiled at the position.
Perhaps the odds-on favorite to win that other spot is redshirt sophomore Rashaan Gaulden, a hard-hitting defensive back who may be a tad undersized at 6’1″ and 185 pounds, but he plays much bigger than he is. With some of the best instincts on the team, Gaulden could be in for a breakout season.
He missed all of last season with a broken bone in his foot when he was all set to start at nickelback. This spring, he began on the second team but quickly unseated Micah Abernathy and looks to be a strong bet to start in August.
Fitting in with all the talent around him is something he told Tennessee football’s official Twitter account motivates him daily:
If Gaulden falters, there are several ready to take over.
Abernathy is a former coveted recruit who will play a key role as a sophomore. Last year, late in the season, things began to click on defense for special teams dynamo Evan Berry, so he could be an X-factor back there.
Berry got somewhat behind as an injury kept him out this spring, but he may be Gaulden’s biggest threat in the fight to see who starts alongside Kelly.
Somebody every Vols fan is excited to see is true freshman Nigel Warrior, who was one of the biggest recruiting coups of the entire class. Though it’s asking a lot for a first-year player to come in and contribute at such a loaded position, Warrior has the potential to be exceptional.
His father, Dale Carter, is a UT legend, and Warrior has the ability to be an all-conference and NFL All-Pro like his dad was. Will he live up to that right away in Knoxville? If so, the Vols won’t be able to keep him off the field.
“I want to make my own path,” Warrior told Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Patrick Brown. “I want to follow his footsteps, but I want to do it in a different way. I want to do it better.”
That’s going to be exciting to watch unfold at safety.
Perhaps the most important spot that is unsettled for Tennessee would answer the question, “Who is going to guard quarterback Joshua Dobbs’ blind side?”
Yes, Dobbs can ease a bunch of worries by sliding out of the pocket and making things happen with his freelancing feet, but that doesn’t mean the Vols can afford a huge revolving door at left tackle.
They’ve got to replace departed senior Kyler Kerbyson, who went from being a Swiss Army knife utility player throughout his career to solidifying the important spot during his final season at UT.
The top candidate to take over his spot at left tackle appears to be redshirt freshman Drew Richmond, one of the biggest recruiting victories of Jones’ tenure.
He got the 6’5″, 301-pound offensive tackle to flip from Ole Miss on national signing day 2015, relieving a concern as the Vols desperately needed a franchise tackle.
The nation’s second-ranked tackle, coming out of Memphis University School, would have been a massive in-state loss, but Jones got him to come to Knoxville. Though Richmond wasn’t ready to make an impact right away, he began to show some promise this spring.
“We’re continuing to work on those options,” Jones told GoVols247’s Wes Rucker in regard to his tackle battles. “Obviously Drew Richmond, we’ve been very encouraged by his development. He continues to be a student of the game, and his body has changed a lot. So you have that option.”
At SEC media days, Richmond was one of the two players UT senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin singled out for carrying the momentum into the offseason too, and JRM isn’t normally one to heap hyperbole.
All that is terrific news for the Vols if it holds up.
Beyond Richmond, you have to believe if Chance Hall—who also missed spring with a shoulder injury—is healthy, he will be a starter at one of the spots. Last year, he held down the gig at right tackle, and he could do that this year if Richmond rises to the challenge on the left.
But somebody who shouldn’t be counted out is redshirt junior Brett Kendrick, who had a fantastic spring, subbing for Hall while Richmond learned the left side. If Richmond struggles early on, Hall could shift to the left and Kendrick would be more than solid at right tackle.
The Vols have so many quality guards and depth on the interior it would be possible for somebody such as Jashon Robertson to slide outside if needed.
UT has plenty of good options, and the Vols won’t suffer at a spot as important at left tackle. They’d love for Richmond to live up to his recruiting rating and make this easy, but if he doesn’t, others could step in.
Another position where Tennessee has a lot of talent but maybe not so many options as the Vols would like is at defensive tackle, which is a position you simply can’t be mediocre at and dominate in the SEC.
That’s why they’ve got to get sophomore Shy Tuttle back healthy and have him and classmate Kahlil McKenzie live up to the huge expectations they brought with them to Knoxville. If that happens, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which they aren’t the guys UT depends on when they’re back.
For Tuttle, it truly is about getting back to 100 percent.
His season was cut short by a filthy hit from Georgia center Brandon Kublanow a season ago, and he’s not been back on the field since. At the recent SEC media days, Jones told the contingent he expected Tuttle to soon begin running but that it’ll be a while before he’s healthy.
That’s a concerning percentage. The Vols need Tuttle back at full speed—at least by the Florida game on Sep. 24. If that happens, it’ll make them a ton better.
For McKenzie, it isn’t about health as much as it is getting his weight down and living up the huge hype that comes with anybody who is a 5-star recruit, especially when his father and uncle both played in the NFL and the former is the general manager of the Oakland Raiders.
Still, it took McKenzie almost the entire year to begin to make an impact in 2015 after he missed his entire senior season of high school because of California high school transfer rules. He also rehabbed a knee injury during that time and got out of shape.
During the SEC Network’s media days coverage, analyst Greg McElroy said McKenzie has been a “huge disappointment” thus far. While it’s tough to label anybody as such after one season, it shows you just what kind of expectations follow the massive defensive tackle.
If his workout videos are any indication, McKenzie is motivated to change those opinions:
That doesn’t always translate on the field, but the Vols need it to. If Tuttle and McKenzie don’t live up to their abilities early on, senior Danny O’Brien and junior Kendal Vickers are solid players who’ve gotten a lot of reps in the past.
Also, don’t forget about the nation’s former top-ranked JUCO player Jonathan Kongbo, who is pushing 280 pounds and could slide inside and play an athletic, pass-rushing hybrid lineman. Just because he’s been recruited as an end doesn’t mean he can’t help on the interior.
The Vols have options there, and while they’d love for Tuttle to get back on the field and for McKenzie to dominate, the battles for those spots are open because of the question marks surrounding the duo.
No. 2 Cornerback
Finally, there’s no question who Tennessee’s go-to, shutdown cornerback will be in 2016 following the return of Cameron Sutton.
After shunning the NFL, the quiet defensive back is poised to let his play do the talking as he prepares to break out of the shadows and receive the recognition he’s deserved his entire career.
But what about who’s going to hold down the other side?
Again, like at safety, there are plenty of cornerback options for defensive backs coach Willie Martinez, but somebody needs to step up and seize the spot.
The safest bet appears to be rising junior Justin Martin, a 6’1″, 183-pound cornerback who has NFL written all over him. After surging toward the end of last season, he looked like he’d nail down the job, but an up-and-down spring didn’t help.
Now, the Vols and new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop probably need to see more of Martin’s huge skill set before anointing him the starter.
The versatility in UT’s defensive backfield could wind up being a benefit here if Martin doesn’t take the position and run away with it. Junior Emmanuel Moseley needs to get more consistent, but he has electrifying speed and would be solid as a starter. He should be the candidate to push Martin the hardest.
But a player such as Abernathy (who played some nickelback a season ago) could factor into the cornerback race. As could a potential wild card such as Berry, Warrior or Osborne. They aren’t necessarily locked into their positions and are all athletic enough to shift around.
JUCO transfer D.J. Henderson may be somebody who has been overlooked a little in the race too, and the Vols didn’t recruit him to stand on the sideline.
Martin has the highest ceiling, however, and the Tennessee would love for him to nail down the spot alongside Sutton. If he does, this could be the most talented secondary UT has put on the field since the early 2000s.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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Source: Bleacher Report CFB