Butch Jones released the season’s first depth chart, and although it’s largely what you’d expect, it does include a few surprises.
— Jesse Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) August 30, 2017
The depth chart shown in Simonton’s tweet was obviously printed before they wanted to announce Drew Richmond’s suspension, but it does make clear who they thought were the best five offensive linemen. Jashon Robertson, a natural left guard but also probably the team’s best offensive lineman, slides to center so that either Jack Jones or Venzell Boulware can be the next guy in at left guard. That leaves out Coleman Thomas, although Jones did praise Thomas at his press conference today and said that he actually could still start at center. But this lineup appears to be the coaching staff’s preference at the moment.
Also not news is that tight end Ethan Wolf, receiver Jajuan Jennings, and running back John Kelly are starting. Nor is it really news that the coaches aren’t going to name the starting quarterback and will instead let Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano duke it out all the way through pre-game warmups.
The defensive side of the ball is mostly not surprising at all, either, except for the fact that they apparently intend to play 12 guys. Ba dump bump. But seriously, linebacker Austin Smith and nickelback Rashaan Gaulden are both listed as starters, but only one will play at any given time, depending on whether the team is in a standard 4-3 or a nickel package.
With the exception of the free safety position (we’ll get to that in a minute), everything else on defense is what you’d expect: Jonathan Kongbo and Darrell Taylor at defensive end, Kahlil McKenzie and Kendall Vickers at defensive tackle, and Colton Jumper filling in for Darrin Kirkland at middle linebacker with Cortez McDowell at weakside. The two cornerbacks are Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Rashaan Gaulden displaced one of them in a standard 4-3.
The mild surprises
The only real surprise on the defensive side of the ball is at the safety positions. Nigel Warrior is given the top spot at strong safety, but the free safety position is apparently still an either/or between Todd Kelly Jr. and Micah Abernathy.
On offense, five players are apparently still competing for the two receiver spots not occupied by Jajuan Jennings. The first name you see, though, is true freshman Josh Palmer, the guy about whom we said last week you’re going to become an instant fan. Jones is apparently also a fan, as he spent a good 60 seconds on Palmer without being asked a single question about him. Brandon Johnson is slotted as the main competitor with Palmer for that spot.
There are three names at the last receiver spot: Latrell Williams, Tyler Byrd, and Josh Smith. It’s a mild surprise (to me, anyway) to see Williams ahead of Byrd, but it’s quite surprising to see Josh Smith’s name there at all, as he was feared injured for an extended period of time. Yes, it turned out that the injury wasn’t quite as severe as originally thought, but up until today it appeared that the earliest Smith would be ready would be the Florida game. You’d be forgiven if you thought that the depth chart was a typo or maybe even error by deadline, but Jones said today in his press conference that there was a chance that Smith could be ready Monday night. I don’t actually see that happening, but anything suggesting that Smith’s going to be ready sooner rather than later is good news.
You get the feeling from Jones’ press conference today that he’s still being a bit cagey about naming starters. This is likely an extended hangover from last year’s misery caused by not having the Plan B guys ready when they were needed. He wants to make sure they are kept motivated. Most of the time when Jones is asked about it, he talks about how much of a good thing it is to have guys continuing to compete right through kickoff. I think that’s mostly what’s happening here, and I think it’s a smart strategy.