Tennessee Football: Replacements for 5 Volunteers Who Went to NFL in 2014

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2014

Tennessee Football: Replacements for 5 Volunteers Who Went to NFL in 2014

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    With the 2014 NFL draft in the books, it was a relatively light few days for the Tennessee Volunteers with only three former players taken.

    Eight more signed contracts as undrafted free agents, according to UTSports.com.

    Head coach Butch Jones wasn't taken by surprise with any of the departures, and his stout first full recruiting class, which was ranked seventh by 247Sports, addressed the holes left by those gone. 

    While the youth movement that accompanies such a massive roster overhaul will be evident, they'll be thrown into the fire early and often thanks to all the players who graduated. For instance, the Vols don't have a single returning starter on either line of scrimmage.

    Depth and experience are not assets Jones will have at his disposal in '14, even if there is a lot more talent on the roster than there was a season ago.

    The best news for UT is it didn't lose any irreplaceable players. Even departed talents—such as a group of experienced offensive linemen who started for the better part of their careers—underachieved at times throughout their Volunteer careers.

    A new crop of Vols will try to put four consecutive losing seasons behind them, and the first step in doing that is to fill the holes left by the guys who'll get to continue their careers on the next level.

    Let's take a look at the replacements for those three drafted Vols, as well as a couple of valuable departed free agents.

Ja'Wuan James

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Replacement: Coleman Thomas

    The Miami Dolphins shocked some when they elected to take former Tennessee Vols right tackle Ja'Wuan James with the 19th overall pick in the NFL Draft.

    But James—who told the Miami Herald's Adam H. Beasley that his "prayers were answered" with the pick—filled a major need for a team that allowed a franchise-worst 58 sacks last season. He is an exceptional pass-blocker who started all of his 49 career games in orange and white.

    Despite having three offensive line coaches in his four seasons, James was a rock on Rocky Top. Replacing him won't be easy.

    That tall task falls to Thomas, a 6'6", 311-pound freshman offensive lineman from Fort Chiswell, Va., who has started since the day he arrived on campus as a mid-term enrollee.

    Jones even noted to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) that "we're asking a lot out of a high school senior starting at right tackle" but he was "encouraged" by Thomas's spring.

    Pass blocking is going to be difficult for Thomas to grasp (as it is for most young linemen), but he has the strength and athleticism to be a road-grader immediately. He is going to take some lumps, but it's essential to UT's success that he grows up quickly.

Zach Fulton

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Replacement: Kyler Kerbyson

    The Vols lost yet another rugged offensive lineman to the draft when the Kansas City Chiefs took Zach Fulton in the sixth round with the 193rd overall pick.

    He may just be the toughest to replace on the field.

    Fulton was a tough, hard-nosed run-blocker who at times was the Vols' most consistent lineman throughout his career. According to GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required), he was a "model of consistency who graded out the highest of any Vols’ O-linemen in 2013."

    This is one position where UT will be able to lean on a veteran to replace him. Redshirt junior Kyler Kerbyson had a terrific spring, beating out sophomore Dylan Wiesman to start at right guard.

    Kerbyson was given the Harvey Robinson Award for the team's most improved player throughout spring drills, and UT desperately needs him to keep improving and have a standout year to fill Fulton's massive shoes.

    If Kerbyson's consistency falters, Wiesman looks like he's a rising star. Both have the ability to play in the NFL, but the Vols just need them to be steady enough to keep the offense clicking with Fulton and the other linemen gone.

Dan McCullers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Replacement: Trevarris Saulsberry

    Daniel "Shade Tree" McCullers had a difficult time staying on the field during his two-year career in Knoxville.

    Still, you can't coach 6'7", 352 pounds, and with size like that, you knew somebody was going to take a chance on him. That team was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who nabbed McCullers in the sixth round (pick 215) to play nose guard in their famed 3-4 alignment.

    For Tennessee, it'll be impossible to replace McCullers' size. But there will almost certainly be an upgrade in athleticism, stamina and pad level at the three-technique defensive tackle inside.

    The onus will fall on Saulsberry, a 6'4", 297-pound lineman from Gainesville, Fla., who has shown flashes of massive potential during healthy portions of the past two seasons. The problem for Saulsberry has been staying healthy.

    He missed this spring recovering from surgery, but it'll be impossible to keep him off the field if he can get back into form. Junior college lineman Owen Williams, as well as freshmen Michael Sawyers and Charles Mosley, also can fit the bill of the jumbo defensive tackle. 

    The Vols will have the talent, but experience again is going to be a major hindrance in production.

Tiny Richardson

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    Donald Page/Associated Press

    Replacement: Dontavius Blair

    As the names fell off the board, Antonio "Tiny" Richardson waited. But his never flashed across the screen.

    Shockingly, a player who was believed at one point to have first-round potential was not selected and signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings.

    According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown, "concerns about the health of his knees caused his stock to fall leading up to the draft." Brown noted that Richardson said on Twitter that he "never saw this coming," after he chose to leave following his junior season.

    The Vols had to address Richardson leaving a year early through recruiting, and they thought they'd done that by signing Blair, one of the top JUCO tackles in the nation. 

    But Blair lost his starting job to fifth-year walk-on Jacob Gilliam this spring, and Gilliam has not yet relinquished it. Still, according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required), "most in the program expect Blair to win back that spot at some point."

    Blair simply needs to have his motor match the tempo of the UT offense, which is difficult for any midterm enrollee. Once he gets his pad leverage and consistency down, he has the frame and long arms to be a very good SEC offensive lineman.

    If not, UT will go with Gilliam, and left tackle is an interesting spot to start a walk-on, to say the least.

Michael Palardy

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Replacement: Aaron Medley

    Rarely can a Ray Guy Award semifinalist be replaced by a true freshman, but Medley certainly has the leg strength and ability to do it.

    The Lewisburg, Tenn., native will be thrust in the middle of a wide-open kicking battle to replace Palardy. Though Palardy's UT career was incredibly inconsistent, he was simply incredible in 2013, making 14 of 17 field goals, hitting all but one of his extra points and averaging 44.5 yards per punt.

    He will continue his career with the New York Jets, who signed him to an undrafted free-agent contract.

    While rising redshirt senior Michael Darr likely will hold down the punting duties, Medley will battle Knoxville's George Bullock and Derrick Brodus for place-kicking duties.

    Medley has to work on his consistency, but the height on his field goals and kickoffs is exceptional, and he has a powerful leg that made him coveted by teams such as Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Of his 52 kickoffs as a high school senior, 46 were touchbacks, according to Volquest's Grant Ramey (subscription required).

    There's no doubt how highly UT thinks of him. According to Ramey's story, UT special teams coordinator Mark Elder said of Medley on signing day that, "We expect Aaron to compete for the starting position the day he steps on campus."