The quiet confidence that was evident when Tennessee football players at SEC media days shrugged off Florida’s trash talk is gone. It has been replaced during the first two days of the Volunteers’ fall practice with vocal leadership.
Not only are the usual suspects such as Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Joshua Dobbs reportedly holding the team accountable, but new leaders like sophomore Darrin Kirkland Jr. and defensive end Derek Barnett have emerged, too.
It’s the evolution of the Vols program, and while nobody can judge how good a team is going to be after two days of pad-less practice, that is an exciting development for a team that has been trying to fix football for nearly a decade. Winning starts with mentality.
This is supposed to be Tennessee’s year, and it isn’t just head coach Butch Jones who is perpetuating that belief.
“We step on the field, we expect to win, and that comes by competing every snap, every play and pushing ourselves to be a great team this year,” Dobbs told Bleacher Report on Tuesday. “We control our own destiny. If we go out and play our style of football, we’ll be where we need to be.”
Despite having just 11 seniors, UT is unique in the fact that many of the players who’ll be entrenched in the two-deep rotation are multiyear starters. That bodes well for a team that needs to close the gap on everybody else by winning the close games that evaded it a year ago.
That ineffectiveness early in the year caused CBS analyst Gary Danielson to tell Gridiron Now’s Tony Barnhart this week that the Vols were the SEC’s “least ready to win the tight games.” Can the Vols flip that script?
Jones will have to do his best coaching on the field this year. In seasons past, his best work came in player development in practice. Now, it seems, the players are taking care of that accountability.
“He just lets us run the team,” Barnett told VolQuest.com’s Austin Bornheim. “If someone isn’t doing something they’re supposed to do, he lets us correct it. He trusts us.”
Perhaps that’s huge news for Vols fans. It seemed early last year, UT’s coaching staff struggled to trust its players during games. If the coaches are confiding in them in the early stages of practice, maybe that trust factor that is so important has been developed.
If Tennessee trusts its talent, big things could be in store in 2016—because there’s a lot of it judging the first couple of days of practice. Let’s take a look at some things that have reportedly stood out in the infancy stages of camp.
First impressions impressive
Tennessee’s recruiting class that signed this past February may not have been ranked as highly as the previous two, but it had plenty of star power.
The marquee players—and even some of the guys who were overlooked by some of the recruiting services—are passing the eyeball test right away.
Everybody wants to know about defensive lineman Jonathan Kongbo, and he has done nothing to dampen the hype thus far.
At a chiseled 270 pounds, the former top-ranked JUCO player in the nation has been called everything from a “grown man” and “man amongst boys” by Kirkland (per GoVols247’s Ryan Callahan) to “pretty” by VolQuest.com’s Brent Hubbs. He’ll help Tennessee right away both inside and out on the D-line.
Everybody is impressed with the redshirt sophomore in the early going, including GoVols247’s Wes Rucker:
Tennessee looks like a completely different team physically from the spring when somewhere between 16 and 21 players missed time due to injuries, including many of the players near the top of the depth chart.
With the infusion of the youngsters, the Vols look even better. Nigel Warrior was another player coveted by virtually every team of consequence in the country, and he’s already battling for a starting safety job, playing with the kind of swagger you’d expect. Rucker shared a photo of the Duluth, Georgia, native:
Freshman receivers Tyler Byrd, Brandon Johnson and Marquez Callaway are impressing, too, following in the footsteps of mid-term enrollee Jeff George, as that new group (along with speedster Latrell Williams) tries to team with Preston Williams, Josh Malone and others to turn the fortunes of UT’s maligned pass-catchers.
ESPN.com’s Chris Low noted prior to the start of fall drills that Jones is expecting big things from Johnson and Byrd, and both have gone out and won their fair share of one-on-one battles in the first couple of days of drills:
Unheralded, undersized offensive tackle Nathan Niehaus has gained 35 pounds and is up to 295 on the latest UT roster. Finally, there’s another highly rated freshman who is turning heads, and it just so happens to be one of the most important players in the entire class for Tennessee’s future.
Passing the test so far
There’s no question whose team this year’s Vols is. The stamp on the season ultimately will be placed by players such as Dobbs, running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, along with others.
But those guys just need to stay sharp prior to the season. There’s no reason for them to be in there banging heads and getting pounded—too much rides on their shoulders.
Dobbs is the man who’ll lead the way for the Vols in ’16, and sophomore Quinten Dormady appears for now to have a firm hold on the backup job. That other youngster who raises eyebrows, though, is a huge positive sign.
That would be 4-star quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who was the nation’s top-ranked dual-threat passer. He may still be a bit raw, but the flashes of brilliance are evident in the way the ball comes out of his hand. It’s obvious in practice videos and to those seeing it in the flesh.
“I love the way the ball comes out of Jarrett G.’s hand,” Hubbs wrote. “He throws a very nice ball. Lots of velocity on his outs.”
That much is obvious in the numerous videos posted on Twitter, such as these from Rocky Top Insider:
Again, it’s impossible to draw too many conclusions for two pad-less days in glorified shell drills, but the belief has been since he committed that Guarantano is the perfect quarterback for Jones’ read-option offense, and his early impressions are bearing that out.
The speed is clear, and the arm strength is clearer.
Though the Vols have struggled with some of their top signal-caller targets for the 2017 and ’18 classes—such as losing commitment Hunter Johnson (Clemson), ’18 prospect Emory Jones (Ohio State) and falling out of the top group for Trevor Lawrence—Guarantano looks like the answer to the worries.
Guarantano likely will redshirt this year unless he can beat out Dormady, and that would mean another year of padding in between him and 3-star commitment CJ Lewis, who may need a little more time to develop.
The early returns on “The Guarantee” are exciting.
Nobody would mistake Tennessee sophomore defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie for being tiny, but the difference between 2015’s version of McKenzie and this year’s is astronomical.
He’s down more than 30 pounds.
That’s why the expectations for the former 5-star, who disappointed some a season ago by failing to have much of an instant impact, are even greater this year for those around him. Instead of the 340-plus he weighed a season ago, McKenzie is now around 315 pounds.
That’s more like the kind of size necessary to play along the front in the SEC.
“I mean, y’all seen him at practice. He looks good,” Barnett told Callahan. “His first step’s better, and (he has) violent hands still. He just looks better. He just looks like a better ballplayer right now.”
He’s going to be needed a lot, along with Danny O’Brien, Kongbo and Kendal Vickers, along with perhaps Quay Picou and maybe even Dimarya Mixon and Andrew Butcher inside. That’s because an almost-certain starter, Shy Tuttle, is still out. Rocky Top News shared an update:
How limited will he be the first week of September? Given that he hasn’t played since a cheap shot in the Georgia game knocked him out for the season early last October, it’s a stretch to believe he’ll be anywhere near 100 percent for Appalachian State.
The Vols just need to target the Florida game to have Tuttle ready. Hopefully, that’s a realistic goal.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
Read more SEC Football news on BleacherReport.com
Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football