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<strong>KNOXVILLE —</strong> Tennessee may be a couple of players short at defensive end for the near future.
First-year Volunteers coach Butch Jones said after Wednesday night’s practice that senior Jacques Smith, a former Ooltewah High School standout, fractured his thumb late in Tuesday night’s workout and will be out four to six weeks after undergoing surgery Wednesday.
Freshman Corey Vereen, who’s drawn praise from coaches since enrolling in January and registered four sacks in the Vols’ spring game, underwent an MRI on his knee, and the coaches hope to know the results today.
“It lends itself to more players getting an opportunity,” Jones said. “We have some veterans at that position that have played a lot of football here. The standard will never change whether it’s first team, second team or third team. We have a standard of expectation at a position, and that’ll never change no matter who’s out there playing for us.”
Jones didn’t rule out Smith returning for the season opener against Austin Peay in 23 days, and the Vols expect to know more in a week.
“We’ll see how he progresses,” the coach said. “That’s football, and it gives another person another opportunity to develop. I already saw Jac, and he’s in great spirits and looking forward to getting back.”
In the meantime, the injuries create more chances for junior Jordan Williams and redshirt freshman LaTroy Lewis behind Corey Miller and Marlon Walls, two seniors who have combined to play in 68 career games. Freshmen Malik Brown, Jaylen Miller and Kendal Vickers also are working at defensive end.
Miller said the Vols have been cross-training at the two defensive positions and the strongside and the “Leo,” a hybrid end-linebacker position where Smith was slated to start.
“If I move over to the Leo, it’s just second nature,” he said. “That’s why everybody’s got to be prepared and ready, and we were. We came to practice today, and I felt very proud about the defense.”
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Williams had 17 tackles and two sacks in 10 games last season, and the 6-4, 245-pound Lewis, the Ohio native whom Jones offered a scholarship as a sophomore while he was Cincinnati’s coach, was slated to be Curt Maggitt’s backup at outside linebacker last August when he tore his ACL playing pickup basketball.
“Every day we know we have to outwork the person behind us, in front of us, and beside us, and that’s our standard,” he said. “We work, we play hard, we play with passion, and that’s what Coach Jones expects from us. I feel like my ability to come off the edge is definitely my asset, and I have to keep improving on it to where I can make it as productive as possible for our defense.”
Jones broke up the Vols’ stretching period and called for an 11-on-11 two-point conversion play with the starting offense and defense. On the play, quarterback Justin Worley faked a handoff, rolled to his right and threw on target to Brendan Downs, but the junior tight end dropped the pass.
Quarterback Nathan Peterman didn’t throw any during Wednesday night’s practice, and Jones said it’s a typical precautionary measure he takes with his quarterbacks.
“They’ve had an abundance of throwing, and so we pick our spots to rest their arms,” the coach said. “Nate went through all the drills but didn’t do any throwing. We’ll do the same in the next day with Justin, and that lends itself to getting the two freshmen valuable repetitions as well.”
Freshman receiver Paul Harris joined the group of players working out on the side, and safety LaDarrell McNeil (hamstring) returned to practice in a green noncontact jersey.
Fifth-year senior cornerback Naz Oliver has left the program and will look to transfer to a school where he can play immediately.
(Not) seeing red
With a veteran group of 10 upperclassmen ahead of them, Tennessee’s trio of freshman offensive linemen appear to be prime candidates to redshirt, but line coach Don Mahoney told them not to think that way.
After the first full-pads practice for Dylan Wiesman, Brett Kendrick and former Bradley Central star Austin Sanders, Mahoney said the group struggled.
“I’ve been pleased with the approach that they’ve taken,” he said Tuesday night. “They’re getting beat up, and they’re coming back and they continue to keep fighting, which is positive. As freshmen, sometimes the head’s down, they sulk around and there’s technical flaws, there’s physical flaws, there’s the speed of the game, there’s the volume of offense and there’s a lot that’s overwhelming.”
Wiesman has worked inside at guard and center, and Kendrick and Sanders have played left and right tackle, respectively.
“It’s like I tell them … you get to a point where [they] feel like, ‘Can I ever do right?’” Mahoney said. “They’ve battled that, and the older guys have been hard on them, which I want them to be. They’ve encouraged them as well. It’s developing that mentality. Obviously it’s not acceptable getting whipped and so forth, so they’re learning at a fast pace.”