Tennessee spring practice preview: Five key questions facing the Vols

Tennessee spring practice preview: Five key questions facing the Vols

March 19th, 2017 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee quarterback Quinten Dormady (12) fires a pass behind ample protection against Tennessee Tech last November in Neyland Stadium. Dormady was the backup the past two seasons and now will compete for the starting job.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is ready to battle for the starting position vacated by Josh Dobbs. His challenge to Quinten Dormady is a major question facing the Vols as spring practice begins Tuesday. See C7 for more.

Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is ready to battle...

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — With a host of new coaches and a handful of household names leaving voids to fill on the depth chart, Tennessee's new-look football program takes the field for its fifth spring under head coach Butch Jones.

The Times Free Press previews Tennessee's spring practices, which kick off Tuesday, with a look at five key questions facing the Volunteers.

1 Who stands out in the quarterback competition?

All eyes will be on Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano as they battle to succeed Josh Dobbs. Don't expect Jones to name a starter any time this spring, however. Tennessee won't want either of its promising prospects looking around.

Guarantano spent Tennessee's spring break this past week in California training with other college players with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield and hanging out with former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Dormady also spent the week training, albeit in a more behind-the-scenes way.

Dormady's edge in experience from two years as the backup is marginal, but it should help him steady his play and show in his command of the offense. Guarantano also isn't lacking in confidence, but his keys will be consistency and ball security. Though both have been looking forward to this battle for months, it's imperative they don't press.

Not only are both players trying to impress coaches, but they're also trying to earn the respect of their teammates. If the rest of the offense responds more noticeably to one quarterback than the other, that could sway the competition. That intangible could carry more weight than passing accuracy or arm talent or scrambling ability.

2 How do the Vols maximize the spring with such a limited defensive line?

New defensive line coach Brady Hoke believes he's inheriting a position group with some talent, but most of his players will be spectators this spring due to injuries from last season or offseason surgery.

Defensive tackles Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie aren't 100 percent from their season-ending injuries last fall and Kendal Vickers and Kyle Phillips will be limited, so Hoke's challenge will be managing practices with a shorthanded group, which could limit how much 11-on-11 work the Vols can do and certainly won't help the offensive line's development.

It's a crucial spring for Alexis Johnson. The junior college transfer defensive tackle was relegated to a nonfactor due to his offseason suspension and in-season injury. This spring will be his first chance to show he can be the kind of contributor Tennessee believed it was getting when it signed him.

Coaches and players have raved about Darrell Taylor's potential for more than a year, but with the likes of Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis in his way, he got limited action last season. Taylor will have every opportunity to back up the hype from everyone in the program. He's one of the key figures in Tennessee's quest to fill those gaping voids at end.

Jonathan Kongbo turned from the crown jewel of the 2016 signing class into a mercurial source of drama last season before buying into moving inside to defensive tackle at the urging of the coaching staff. His performance in the bowl game was encouraging for his future. Whether he's at end or tackle, Kongbo needs to be a difference-maker in year two.

Undersized defensive tackle Quay Picou has been a weight-room star this offseason with new strength coach Rock Gullickson, and there's also some buzz around freshman end Deandre Johnson, who will get as much work as he can handle.

3 What impact will Tennessee's new-look coaching staff have?

Tennessee has five new coaches not including Larry Scott's promotion to offensive coordinator, and while the changes appear to be upgrades on paper, they still have to mesh with each other and the players.

The Vols are starting spring practice a little later than usual. The coaching staff spent hours in meetings throughout February and March to prepare for spring practice, organize their recruiting efforts and jell with each other. Watching them work on the practice field should be fascinating.

Beyond fresh ideas, a new set of eyes and different styles of teaching and interacting with players, new coaches often bring clean slates to their positions, which can give some outcast players new leases on life and the chance to revive their careers.

4 How ready is Trey Smith to contribute on a crowded offensive line?

The five-star prospect who enrolled in January neither looks nor carries himself like a freshman. In terms of returning experience, though, Tennessee is the strongest on the offensive line. The Vols have seven linemen with starting experience in addition to four second-year players.

New offensive line coach Walt Wells said earlier this month Smith will start out working at left tackle this spring, but he also figures to get some work inside at guard as well. The greater opportunity will be at tackle, where Brett Kendrick (ankle) is out and Chance Hall (knee) may be limited. Drew Richmond, the returning left tackle, has had a good offseason.

Smith's career got off to a strong start in offseason workouts, but his first on-field action should shed light on the big-time recruit's ability to contribute right away.

5 Which players take advantage of the clean slate in the secondary?

The first step in Tennessee's defense bouncing back from last season's nightmarish close is staying healthy. The next step is better play in the secondary. It's why Charlton Warren perhaps has the biggest chore of the Vols' new coaches.

Once injuries sidelined Cameron Sutton and sapped Micah Abernathy of his September form, Tennessee's secondary played poorly and often didn't look like a well-coached unit. The Vols struggled in run support and couldn't win 50-50 battles in pass coverage. On-field performances and staff chemistry problems prompted a change.

Those struggles are in the past now with Warren in charge. His military background and no-nonsense demeanor quickly showed his players how he'll coach them. His position's success at North Carolina and Nebraska bode well for improvement.

Tennessee won't be at full strength in the secondary with Evan Berry not 100 percent after tearing his ACL and Abernathy, Rashaan Gaulden and Stephen Griffin limited, but it's an important spring for veterans such as Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley as well as younger players such as Nigel Warrior, Marquill Osborne and Baylen Buchanan.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.