Tennessee first-year football coach Jeremy Pruitt told the media before his Big Orange Caravan stop in Chattanooga this past week that he expects the 27-30 players the Vols will infuse into the roster who didn’t help this spring will totally change the complexion of the team.
According to GoVols247’s Patrick Brown, Pruitt said:
“I think if you looked at the guys who participated in the Orange & White Game and you count the signees and you count the guys that was injured, there could be anywhere between 27 and 30 guys who didn’t participate in the Orange & White Game that’ll be there in the fall, which will completely change our football team.”
UT hopes — and expects — that change will be for the better. If star offensive lineman Trey Smith, returning receiver Jauan Jennings, graduate transfers Keller Chryst and Madre London, linebackers Daniel Bituli and Darrin Kirkland Jr., safety Todd Kelly Jr. and others can live up to expectations, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Tennessee can go from an eight-loss team to a bowl participant.
That’s not even counting JUCO players like Dominick Wood-Anderson, Kenneth George Jr., Jahmir Johnson and Emmit Gooden.
But what about some of the guys who are already on the roster and went through spring? Who needs to take a major step forward? Who are some under-the-radar Vols who are capable of catapulting from obscurity to dependability?
The Vols simply need to get production from unexpected areas to leap back to respectability. Let’s take a look at some candidates.
You’ve got to love a story like Calbert’s, the massive McMinnville, Tennessee, native who camped for Butch Jones’ staff, eagerly awaited an offer from the Vols despite having offers from schools like South Carolina and Florida. And, when he got one, he committed quickly thereafter.
Leg problems (mostly knee issues) plagued much of his high school career and his freshman year at UT, but he began to improve and ultimately shine this spring. The redshirt freshman was a pleasant surprise in the Orange & White Game, and he looks like he can help Tennessee right now. Calbert is one of the few big, physical linemen on the roster who is athletic enough to be a difference-maker. He looks the part, works hard, and — if he can stay healthy — could be a major asset to the offensive line.
This is an area that was atrocious under the Jones regime, but with long-time quality assistant Will Friend leading the way, the unit was decent this spring. There are some players there, and Calbert — who can play tackle but likely should be a guard — emerged. If he can continue to take strides in strength and conditioning, he could become a starter this year and thrive.
Talk about raising from the dead …
What a major help for the Vols Chance Hall would be if he could come back from his chronic knee problems that threatened his career. The Virginia native started as a true freshman against Alabama, Georgia and others and looked like a budding star and long-time starter on Rocky Top. Then came the injuries that began back in his high school days (much like Calbert’s). Much of the past two years have been lost.
Now, Hall is back. But is he all the way back? That’s a major question mark. If he’s just working on the sideline at practice, then big whoop. If his rehabilitation is complete this summer and he rounds back into form, that’s basically a quality player that’s the equivalent of house money. At least from a fan’s perspective, nothing else was expected of Hall in his career. Now, we’re looking at the next couple of years of eligibility believing that if he can somehow recapture the stuff that made him a go-to guy as a first-year player against some of the SEC’s best teams, he could solidify the exterior of the line while Pruitt builds back the unit.
That’s a tantalizing thought.
Don’t go back and watch the Orange & White Game looking for Ignont highlights. It was bad. Really, really bad.
He missed tackles, led with his head, struggled to make any plays and generally looked like he lacked any physicality. The Buckhorn (Ala.) High School product looks like the prototypical 3-4 inside linebacker, but he played an awful spring scrimmage. Plus, when Bituli and Kirkland gets back, Ignont’s going to have a difficult time finding starting reps. JJ Peterson will further crowd the center of the defense as well.
But it isn’t all bad for Ignont. He was in position to make A LOT of plays in that spring-ending scrimmage. He’s big, he’s fast, and if he ever gets motivated, he’ll be a player for UT — whether it’s this year or next. If the light comes on under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer, he can be a difference-maker as early as this year. I’m that high on his potential.
But Ignont has to dedicate himself to being the type of player who can make an impact on the field. That starts off the field — in the weight room, film room, and out of trouble. Then, he’s just got to let his instincts take over. When he does that, he’ll shine. Will it be in 2018?
Perhaps the least-surprising player on this list is Jackson, who may not even belong. After this spring, the Nashville native has firmly put himself in position for some quality reps this fall, if not a starting role. He can play Star (his most likely spot) or safety, but he’s too aggressive to keep on the sideline.
The thoughts of a defense that boasts him and Nigel Warrior flying around on the back end is intriguing, especially if Micah Abernathy can return to as good as he was as a sophomore two years ago.
But Tennessee doesn’t just need a “starter” or a “contributor” on the back end. It needs a star. It needs somebody who can obliterate guys with the ball, force turnovers, make plays. Warrior needs to be that guy, but there needs to be more than just him. Jackson is a difference-making candidate, and if he is, that can change UT’s defense.
Pruitt is a known defensive back developer, and Jackson looks like the perfect ball of clay. That transition from “just another potato” to use a Dooley-ism to a stud needs to start right away. The Vols need playmakers on the back end stat.
Another player that won’t sneak up on anybody anymore is sophomore running back Jordan, who showed up and showed out in a spring game that simply didn’t have many stars. He showed the ability to hit a hole, drag a defender and make plays.
Is Jordan going to be as dynamic as Ty Chandler? No. Is he the type of hard-nosed, between-the-tackles bruiser that Michigan State transfer Madre London is? Uh-uh. But Jordan is perhaps the best combination of the two. He can do a lot of things, and he deserves reps because of that. Nobody is expecting a 1,000-yard season from Jordan, but to get through the rugged SEC season, you need two or three quality rushers, at least. Jordan is pretty big and pretty fast and can do a lot of things with the ball.
What you saw isn’t an aberration; he’s a good-looking back who had a great film and looks like he can be a good SEC player. Can he do it against good defenses, though? We’ll all see that this fall because he should get some opportunities.
What the heck happened to Osborne? You remember when he committed to UT in September of his junior year, giving the Vols and Jones one of his biggest early commits? Even when powerhouses like Clemson and Ohio State came calling, Osborne stuck with UT.
Where is that player?
So far at UT, the North Carolina cornerback hasn’t made a blip on the radar screen. Much like Abernathy was the player coveted by OSU and Georgia as a prep player, the Vols need those guys to live up to their potential. There are two cornerback spots wide open on UT’s roster. Nobody has staked a claim to them. Freshman Alontae Taylor looks like a natural and could be fine there if he stays on defense, and Baylen Buchanan did some nice things this spring.
But Osborne has that pedigree. Why can’t he flash? Is he just a bust, or will the light come on and he surprise some folks? The Vols need for the latter to happen. They need somebody who can neutralize opposing receivers. I’m not sure Osborne is that guy, but a lot of good programs once thought he may be.
Is all he needs coaching?
Where art thou, Derek Barnett? The Vols certainly missed their all-time sack leader a year ago as he was off winning a Super Bowl with the Eagles as a rookie. The pass rush was stagnant at times and nonexistent at others for UT a season ago. When you look up and down the roster, there aren’t a lot of exciting players who look capable of getting after quarterbacks.
Maybe Darrell Taylor will flash from the second level. Perhaps Jonathan Kongbo and Kyle Phillips can have breakout senior seasons after ho-hum careers.
But Smith is a guy I’m excited to see. There were times throughout his career where the former staff tried him at defensive end, where he was too small. They moved him to linebacker, where he was perhaps too big for a 4-3. Now, in a 3-4 scheme, he may have found a home.
The Vols would love for a guy like JUCO Jordan Allen to emerge and be a pass-rushing threat, but Smith could be hard to keep off the field. The bad thing about UT is he’s not going to be a film-flasher. Maybe he’s steady, and maybe he’ll make some plays. But is he going to make big plays?
This is his junior year. If he’s ever going to do it, it needs to be now.
Other than maybe the linebacking corps, the position group that stands to see the most improvement in 2018 is wide receiver. After all, it’ll be hard not to improve on the less-than-stellar coaching chops of Kevin Beard. Before him, Zach Azzanni never really developed anybody but Josh Malone, either.
When you’re running horizontal routes in the boring Butch offense, it’s hard to establish any playmakers.
With David Johnson coming over to coach receivers from Memphis, though, the group could see a huge boost.
Everybody is excited about getting Jennings back on the team to go along with Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson. That’s a quality trio right there. But UT needs a guy with game-breaking, difference-making chops with the ball in his hands.
Tyler Byrd doesn’t look like he’s ever going to be that guy. Jordan Murphy is young. Josh Palmer needs to learn how to consistently catch the ball after running his strong routes.
Williams is this year’s “pick to click.” He has blazing speed, and though he’s battled injuries during his freshman season, he got a redshirt and has three years left to shine in Knoxville. He may be raw and won’t always run the best routes, but UT is going to have a lot of guys to do those things. If Williams and whoever is quarterback can find a way to just get the ball in Williams’ hands, the Florida speedster can do some things with it that most can’t.
It’s going to be interesting to see if this offense can get guys in space where Jones’ offense failed. If they can, Williams could really emerge.