Tennessee Football: Previewing 5 Biggest Position Battles Heading into Fall Camp
With more than 30 newcomers and few incumbents with firm grasps on their jobs from a season ago, the Tennessee Volunteers' fall practice is going to be one big free-for-all.
Position battles will ensue all over the field. While that is certainly healthy for competition, head coach Butch Jones no doubt wishes he had several more dependable stars.
No more than eight or nine Vols are sure bets to be starters. Everybody else must bring the intensity daily and elevate his play, or somebody talented and inexperienced will surge ahead.
A year ago, the urgency wasn't quite as pronounced for UT's players because there wasn't enough talent on the roster to generate real competition. Senior linebacker A.J. Johnson said at SEC media days last week, according to UTSports.com, that isn't the case anymore:
Some of the guys who came in early in the spring are already on beat, working, being vocal, just as though they've been here for 3 or 4 years. And the guys who just got here this summer, they've got their head down working each day. Some guys came in already knowing the whole defense and are ready to play. You can tell the way they are working, how much they put into their work. It's going to help us a lot. We've got older guys and we've got younger guys, so we've got competition. If you've got competition, everybody is going to go harder and play better.
Even though fans are going to be buzzing about freshmen such as Jalen Hurd and Josh Malone, they are at positions where they'll play a lot regardless of whether they start. There are much more important battles with unclear conclusions.
So, let's take a look at the top five position battles to watch in Knoxville this fall, ranked in order of importance by how much finding the right player will directly impact the team's success.
5. No. 2 Cornerback
One of spring's biggest surprises was true freshman cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, who seized a starting spot from sophomore Malik Foreman and held it for most of the session.
While the Vols can go ahead and mark down former freshman All-American cornerback Cameron Sutton at one of the starting spots, that other position is undecided.
Moseley is a speed-burner who is raw but talented, and Foreman has the ability to overtake that spot as well. They'll be joined by a freshman trio of Rashaan Gaulden, Evan Berry and D'Andre Payne, who could factor in the race as well as sophomore Michael Williams.
Payne played most of the spring backing up Justin Coleman at nickelback, but he can play either spot.
Butch Jones told the media in Hoover, Alabama, last week how much the young guys have elevated the play from a season ago, saying there "should be a lot of competition in the back end of our defense."
Despite all the new faces who enrolled this summer, GoVols247's Wes Rucker said it's going to be difficult to unseat Moseley:
Assuming everyone stays healthy and eligible, though, the guess on this end is that Moseley will get the bulk of the snaps this season as the No. 2 corner. He looked very good at times this spring, and he should only improve as he continues to add size and become more familiar with life at this level of the game.
Moseley's speed, the fact that he already has gone through spring practice and his massive potential make him the favorite to line up opposite Sutton in UT's season opener against Utah State.
4. Defensive Tackle
Oft-injured redshirt junior Trevarris Saulsberry has the ability to step right in and be an impact defensive tackle for the Vols if he can stay off the training table.
But that other spot in the interior of UT's defensive line is completely up in the air.
Exiting spring practice, two newcomers—junior college standout Owen Williams and freshman Dimarya Mixon—got first-team reps over Danny O'Brien. All three will be firmly in the rotation, but they'll battle for the rights to take the first snap along with others.
Defensive line coach Steve Stripling has a lot of versatility with which to work, and a couple of freshmen who were listed out of high school as defensive ends could have the size to shift inside.
According to the official depth chart, Dewayne Hendrix is 6'4", 273 pounds, and Derek Barnett is listed at 6'3", 267 pounds. They could outgrow the strong-side defensive end position.
Perhaps the biggest wild card in the battle for that other defensive tackle spot is Saulsberry's Gainesville (Florida) High School teammate, Jordan Williams. The senior is listed at 6'5", 272 pounds and will probably play most of his snaps at tackle as a senior.
Curt Maggitt mentioned Williams' name as one of the defense's leaders in the past few months. Butch Jones told the media in Hoover last week:
Defensively, Jordan Williams is an individual who is a senior out of Gainesville, Florida, who has really worked himself into great physical condition. We're going to expect a lot from him. We expect a lot from our seniors. He's had a great offseason.
It's imperative UT gets better on that defensive front than it was a season ago, and finding a rotation of five or six tackles on which it can depend will go a long way.
With Jordan Williams' athleticism, he would be a quality counterpart to his high school teammate in the middle.
3. Free Safety
Two years ago, LaDarrell McNeil was thrust into a starting role as a true freshman and looked like he would turn out to be a really good player in Knoxville.
Then last year, he took a major step back in defensive coordinator John Jancek's system.
Now, McNeil will find himself in a dogfight for his job entering a junior season where he'll be joined by talented youngsters such as Cortez McDowell and Todd Kelly Jr.
Though Evan Berry and Rashaan Gaulden could play either cornerback or safety, one of those guys also could be in the mix for McNeil's job, too.
I know they play a lot of freshmen on special teams, but ultimately where ever they put me I am just going to go out there and give it all my all. Right now I am weigh [sic] 203 pounds, they put that on me pretty quick and I have been able to keep my speed up as well. So I have enjoyed it but wherever they put me that is where I am going to play.
He'll almost certainly get on the field this year in some capacity.
As for the 6'1", 204-pound McNeil, he had a prime opportunity to take a leadership role this past spring with fellow safety Brian Randolph out with an injury. He failed to do so, but the experience he brings into this battle with a bunch of freshmen will benefit him.
In two seasons, McNeil has 112 tackles, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and an interception. If he has improved his speed, angles and awareness, it'll be difficult to unseat him.
But he has a long way to go from last season, and there are plenty of young star prospects waiting to take his spot. One of the freshmen likely will get the nod—if not by the first game, then soon afterward.
2. Left Tackle
When Tennessee recruited Dontavius Blair out of Garden City Community College—beating the likes of Auburn, Texas A&M and Florida State for the 6'8", 303-pound prospect—the Vols expected him to come in and start immediately.
Then, Blair struggled this spring and was replaced in the starting rotation at left tackle by fifth-year senior and former walk-on Jacob Gilliam, who just earned a scholarship this season.
While Gilliam's emergence is a great story, and he will be relied on to provide much-needed depth, the Vols need Blair to live up to his massive potential.
Butch Jones mentioned Blair specifically at SEC media days, noting: "I'm excited to see how much he's progressed throughout the months of the summer."
Why? Because the Vols desperately need an impact left tackle to anchor that line.
When UT gets in the rugged SEC wars, Blair has to be the guy to step up and earn his spot. If not, the Vols will go with Gilliam, who hopes to end his yeoman's career near his Farragut home as a starter.
There's also the possibility that UT could move starting guard Kyler Kerbyson to right tackle, shift current right tackle—freshman Coleman Thomas—to the left side and insert Dylan Wiesman into Kerbyson's guard spot.
That seems drastic, but there is no way the Vols can go into the season with their quarterback's blind side shaky. Getting that offensive line set is essential, and getting that left tackle spot fixed should be at the top of the priority list.
Just how far have the Vols quarterbacks come since last year, which was one of the worst signal-calling seasons on the Hill in recent memory?
Butch Jones called his group of quarterbacks a "strength" at SEC's annual media days, according to Saturday Down South. That interesting comment comes even before UT's second-year coach has named a starter between Justin Worley, Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman:
I'm excited about our overall quarterback competition. I think all three individuals have really, really elevated their game from Justin Worley to Nate Peterman to Josh Dobbs. We've really, really challenged them. I also think the influx of talent around them at the skill spots, wide receiver, tight end and running back is also going to increase their overall level of play. But I'm very, very encouraged by what I've seen. There is no timetable to naming a starter. I want them to compete as much as possible because I think competition is healthy.
While competition is certainly healthy, so is your team developing a rapport with the man under center. That's why the guess here is Jones will name a starter sooner rather than later.
Even if he doesn't, much like the start of last season, it would be a shocker if Worley wasn't the man. The senior from Rock Hill, South Carolina, was finally developing when he was injured for the remainder of the year in last season's Alabama game.
After a solid spring, Worley made it to the semifinals of the Manning Passing Academy this month, according to NFL.com's Chase Goodbread, and has taken several necessary steps to assure ownership of this team.
Dobbs could build off his dazzling spring finale and take over the job this fall, and that would make the Vols even stronger at the position.
Regardless of Worley being the perceived front-runner, UT's quarterback battle should be a good, old-fashioned race with a couple of capable arms. The Vols desperately need somebody to seize control of the job and never look back.
All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports Composite. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com. Quotes taken from official media transcript on UTSports.com unless otherwise noted. Observations from the spring were gathered firsthand.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:
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