KNOXVILLE — The position drills on the University of Tennessee football practice field have been more crowded this August.
The Volunteers have more bodies across the board, but while the coaches feel they may have more depth with which to work, the sentiment is more precarious than confident.
"It's better," coach Derek Dooley said after Tuesday morning's practice, "but it's not where it needs to be. We're deeper than we were a year ago, but we're not a deep, talented football team."
Attrition has depleted the junior and senior classes. UT has 81 players currently on scholarship, including former walk-ons in linebackers Shane Reveiz and Jake Storey, long-snapper Nick Guess and recently added defensive tackle Joseph Ayres.
That's an improvement over last season when the roster number dipped into the 60s, but it's going to take another full recruiting class or two before the Vols feel they have the depth to match the other Southeastern Conference schools.
The depth the Vols do have might be young and inexperienced, but it may not limit them defensively.
"We've got more numbers at D-line, linebacker and [defensive back] that we feel like have an opportunity to help us in the games, so that's encouraging," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "There's certain situations where we can match up personnel a little bit better, but again that's all going to be dictated by who we're playing [and] what their scheme is.
"We're definitely doing a little more in terms of substitution things that we did last year. You've got to have guys to rotate. For 11 guys to play 70 snaps anymore, it's pretty unheard of. I think from that standpoint, the more people you have that you feel good about being in the game, the better off you're going to be because you're going to be a little bit more fresh."
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was less positive. Though the Vols feel they have six or seven quality linemen, most of the reserves are freshmen, and tailback/receiver Rajion Neal, tailback Tom Smith and receivers Matt Milton and Zach Rogers have missed or been limited in practice.
"When everybody's healthy, I feel like maybe possibly [we have better depth than last year], but I haven't seen everybody out here yet," he said. "We haven't had full guns blazing yet, so maybe when we get there, I'll feel that way. As we sit here today, no, we don't have more depth than we've had in the previous two years that I've been here."
The thinnest spot on offense might be receiver, where injuries to Milton and Rogers and inexperience of freshmen Vincent Dallas and DeAnthony Arnett have muddied the picture behind Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers so much that UT brought Anthony Anderson and Naz Oliver over from cornerback last week.
"I always worry about that," Chaney said. "It depends on how often you've got to put three or four wideouts in a game at one time. If you have to that a lot, I'm concerned. If we can play in a pro-style offense all the time, then we're probably all right."
Teams with depth usually can rest their offensive and defensive guys on special teams because they can use reserves on special-teams coverage and return units, but Dooley doesn't feel the Vols are at that point.
"We're obviously real thin at linebacker, and that hurts us on special teams," he said. "We're thin at safety, that hurts us on special teams. We don't have a deep running back corps, and that hurts us on special teams."
If nothing else, the Vols' depth has created competition, which Dooley has said this month improves individual players and the team overall. While that is a positive, UT's depth isn't there yet.
Said Chaney: "I always want two more than what I have."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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