KNOXVILLE — It's not clear if Tennessee's football staff brought in a reptilian expert to motivate their 2017 team, but at least two key defensive players see the Volunteers in an interesting serpentine light.
"I feel like we're laying in the grass waiting to strike," redshirt sophomore defensive end Darrell Taylor said Tuesday.
Taylor's assessment of the team's mindset came two weeks after senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. offered a similar analogy in describing this year's Tennessee team.
"Right now we're in the weeds," Kelly said. "No one is really seeing us, almost like a snake in the grass. Our goal is to end up biting somebody at the end of the day and making them pay."
After being overwhelming favorites to win the SEC East in 2016 and falling short, the Vols were picked by the media to finish third in the division this year. With such stars as Joshua Dobbs, Alvin Kamara and Derek Barnett departed, most have Georgia and Florida tabbed to win the SEC East.
"Our team is not talked about as much now, so I feel like we're waiting for our opportunity to shine," Taylor said. "We're going to do what we've got to do to get there."
Freshman Smith working at guard
Tennesee coach Butch Jones confirmed after the team's third preseason practice Tuesday night that heralded true freshman Trey Smith has been working at offensive guard early in training camp.
Smith signed with Tennessee over Alabama and several other schools out of the University School of Jackson in West Tennessee as one of the top-rated players in the country and a projected offensive tackle. But with the Vols' returning depth on the offensive line, guard could his path to early playing time.
"I think we all have to be careful," Jones said. "He's never played one down of college football, and even us as coaches, we have to step back — he's still a true freshman — and make sure we don't put too much expectations on him early. He's competing for a job every single day. That's what I like about the offensive-line room, is they're competing every single day and we have some competitive battles there."
Callaway 'consistent' on punt returns
With last year's punt returners Kamara and Cam Sutton each drafted into the NFL, Jones is on the hunt for a new playmaker to put in that role.
Sophomore wide receiver Marquez Callaway, who returned a punt for a touchdown against Tennessee Tech last season, appears to be a prime candidate.
"That is one of the positions on our football team that is under a great competitive battle right now," Jones said. "It's reliability and consistency. Marquez has done a great job. He's very consistent."
Jones also mentioned senior wide receiver Josh Smith and freshman safety Theo Jackson as players who are handling punt returns in practice. But he said the coaching staff is letting "eight or nine" players practice punt returns.
Concern about 'balls on the ground'
Jones liked the energy of the team during Tuesday's practice, although he said the offense struggled with ball security.
"Too many balls on the ground," he said. "Everything is about turnover margin. It's a fine line between winning and losing. Today I really liked the way our defense swarmed to the football. I liked them hunting the ball and the ball disruptions. But as an offense, we had way too many turnovers, way too many balls on the ground. You're not going to win very many games turning the football over."
The Vols practice today, are off Thursday and will practice in full pads for the first time Friday.
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.