Vols enter spring football practice riding huge wave of optimism

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sophomore receiver Squirrel White enters Monday's start to spring football practice coming off a nine-catch, 108-yard performance in the 31-14 Orange Bowl triumph over Clemson.

Amid the euphoria of Tennessee's 31-14 downing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, the biggest postseason victory for the Volunteers in a quarter-century, coach Josh Heupel made sure the excitement of that Dec. 30 night would not be tempered moving forward.

"We're just getting started in what we're developing here," Heupel said.

Tennessee has already won the race in Heupel's quest "to be as good as we can as fast as we can," with each of his first two teams in Knoxville showing a four-win improvement over the previous year. Last season's 11-2 squad even landed at No. 1 in the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings before losing on November's first Saturday to eventual national champion Georgia.

Yet it's the "just getting started" portion of Heupel's claim in Miami Gardens that is sure to be his focus Monday, when the Vols hold their first of 15 spring practices. Tennessee is also scheduled to work Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday of this upcoming week, which will represent the early stages of the eventual buildup to the Orange & White spring game at 2:30 p.m. on April 15.

It's a unique time for a program that could produce as many as six players within the first two rounds of next month's NFL draft — quarterback Hendon Hooker, receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman, offensive tackle Darnell Wright, edge rusher Byron Young and linebacker Jeremy Banks — but also returns a slew of experience.

Here are five storylines to follow in the weeks ahead:

1. Quarterback dynamic

In a Southeastern Conference landscape where Alabama and Georgia have to break in new starting quarterbacks, Tennessee brings back its Orange Bowl MVP.

Joe Milton III and his bionic arm return for a sixth college season, yet there is also the fanfare surrounding five-star midyear enrollee Nico Iamaleava. The 6-foot-6, 200-pound newcomer was able to go through December drills leading up to the bowl and drew rave reviews, thus resulting -- whether directly or indirectly -- in Tayven Jackson entering the transfer portal and heading to Indiana.

The Vols have a clear pecking order with Milton and Iamaleava, who are the only scholarship quarterbacks this spring. Walk-ons Gaston Moore and Navy Shuler will vie for the third-team role.

2. Portal additions

Some of Tennessee's 2023 roster already has been assembled via the transfer portal with the likes of Milton, receiver Bru McCoy, offensive tackle Gerald Mincey, and defensive backs Kamal Hadden, Brandon Turnage and Wesley Walker.

Another such wave has the opportunity for an impact.

Eager to compete for starting roles after playing elsewhere are receiver Dont'e Thornton (Oregon), tight end McCallan Castles (UC Davis), offensive linemen Andrej Karic (Texas) and John Campbell Jr. (Miami), defensive lineman Omarr Norman-Lott (Arizona State), linebacker Keenan Pili (BYU), cornerback Gabe Jeudy-Lally (BYU) and kicker Charles Campbell (Indiana).

Pili will be one to monitor given the departures of Banks and Juwan Mitchell at that position group. The Vols return Aaron Beasley, who was stellar against Clemson, and the promising Elijah Herring, but early production by Pili would be welcome.

  photo  Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson/ Tennessee's Dylan Sampson averaged 6.8 yards per carry as a freshman last season and gives the Volunteers a formidable running back trio this spring with Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright.

3. Emerging skill

There are areas in which the Vols would appear quite safe and secure, with Jabari Small, Jaylen Wright and Dylan Sampson returning at running back, and with receivers McCoy, Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White having shouldered the load in the Orange Bowl.

Yet there is always room for more.

Will Thornton be an instant hit after averaging 20.8 yards a catch in two seasons with the Ducks? Can freshman receiver Nathan Leacock, a top-100 national signee, earn his way into a rotation? Will another high four-star freshman, Cameron Seldon, finish spring at running back or at receiver?

4. Finding the five

The biggest offensive task is replacing Wright, who played right tackle, and left guard Jerome Carvin. Those two combined for a staggering 85 career starts.

Tennessee does return center Cooper Mays, right guard Javontez Spraggins and the left tackle tandem of Mincey and JJ Crawford, with fifth-year senior Dayne Davis and sixth-year senior Ollie Lane owning past starting experience as well.

Third-year line coach Glen Elarbee has 16 scholarship players at his disposal, which includes portal transfers Campbell and Karic and junior-college signee Larry Johnson III, so a lot of mixing and matching can be expected in the days ahead and potentially again in August camp.

5. Secondary surplus

Remember last spring when the Vols were limited by a lack of healthy defensive backs?

That is far from the case this time around, as secondary coach Willie Martinez has nine returning players with starting experience: Hadden, Turnage, Walker, Warren Burrell, Christian Charles, Jaylen McCollough, Tamarion McDonald, De'Shawn Rucker and Doneiko Slaughter.

Jeudy-Lally is expected to quickly jump into the mix, with the potential of Jourdan Thomas, Andre Turrentine and Dee Williams earning more playing time as well.

Tennessee's defensive backfield may be its deepest area. The challenge now is to develop some all-conference material and greatly enhance a unit that ranked 127th last season with 289.5 passing yards allowed per game.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.