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UT freshman linebacker Kenny Bynum

KNOXVILLE -- Kenny Bynum ended the 2014 football season as Tennessee's starting middle linebacker.

The rising fourth-year junior has yet to relinquish the position.

Despite the challenges of redshirt freshmen Dillon Bates and Gavin Bryant, Bynum -- who started at the spot in the Volunteers' TaxSlayer Bowl win in January -- continues to take the first-team reps as Tennessee wraps up its third week of spring practice.

"The first thing is he knows what to do," defensive coordinator John Jancek said after Thursday's practice. "He knows how to set the front, he knows all the calls, gets guys lined up and that's huge. Kenny's done a really good job."

The 6-foot-1, 243-pound Bynum, who made two tackles in the bowl win, may not have the physical talent and upside that four-star recruits Bates and Bryant possess, and he may not be able to hold onto the starting spot by the time season rolls around.

Entering spring, Bates was the popular pick to slide into the spot manned the last four years by three-time All-SEC pick A.J. Johnson, but his health has stunted his development. Coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder in late September, Bates is not yet 100 percent healthy, and Bryant has gotten more second-team looks this week.

"He's still hurt right now," linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said of Bates. "He had the flu for the last two days, so he kind of had a setback, but he's a smart kid and takes a lot of pride. The greatest thing about Dillon is he's got a lot of pride in himself and very prideful of the game.

"Unfortunately right now he's not 100 percent with his strength, so he struggles on getting off blocks. As far as the knowledge, he's doing a really good job of getting guys aligned, coming in and asking a lot of questions. For me, he's a true freshman because he's never played that position. He's got a long way to go as far as the knowledge of the game."

For now, though, the job appears to be Bynum's to lose.

"That's the thing Kenny has to be. He's got to be a smart player," Jancek said. "He's got to be in great position. He's got to use his fundamentals. I think he understands that.

"I think he knows his shortcomings as a player, his strengths and his weaknesses, and he's got to continue to grow and develop within that framework of knowing what his strengths and what his weaknesses are."

Swafford's strip

After hauling in a Quinten Dormady pass over the outstretched arms of safety Lemond Johnson on a corner route, tight end A.J. Branisel had a long, seemingly free run to the end zone for a touchdown during an 11-on-11 period early in Thursday's practice.

Devaun Swafford, the nickel cornerback on the other side of the field, had other ideas.

The rising junior tracked down Branisel, stripped the ball from behind and recovered it in the end zone for a touchback.

Most of his defensive coaches and teammates ran down the field to show Swafford how much they appreciated his effort.

"I think our whole entire team takes a lot of pride in finishing plays, and that's basically our standard," secondary coach Willie Martinez said. "We talk about it all the time. You play from the start of the whistle to the echo of the whistle, so to speak, and that was a great example of what our program is built off of, and that's finishing the play. And he did that.

"He didn't give up, and he did a nice job of a pin-and-punch technique that we teach, and it was good to see that. We've asked our defense to do that on every single play, is give great effort. To see something like that happen is very good."

Hall not hobbling

Freshman offensive lineman Chance Hall was a question mark for this spring after missing his senior season in high school with a torn Achilles' tendon, but he's hardly missed any reps as the 6-5, 315-pound guard and tackle Jack Jones form an all-freshman right side of Tennessee's second-team line.

Hall is a big body at guard, and how much he's been able to do and what he's done has been a pleasant surprise for the Vols.

"He's a guy that doesn't want to miss a rep," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "I'm really excited about how much his reps have increased, how much workload he's been able to handle now, and he's only learning more and more.

"He's learning the hard way, because there's more defeats than wins that are coming his way, but the leadership's helping him fight through that."

Coaching 'test'

After he missed Tuesday's practice, the Vols again held Alvin Kamara (thigh bruise) out of Thursday's practice, which left them with just two healthy running backs, both walk-ons.

During the team period Thursday, Jayson Sparks, a third-year sophomore out of Grayson, Ga., broke free for a long run that was called back for a holding penalty downfield on receiver Von Pearson, and Kendrick Turner, a freshman from Memphis, turned a swing pass into a nice gain.

Running backs coach Robert Gillespie's unit will look much different in August and beyond when Kamara and Jalen Hurd are back at 100 percent and a couple other scholarship backs join the group, but for now, he's coaching with the hand he's been dealt.

"That's the fun part of coaching," he said. "You just never know what you're going to have or who you're going to have in practice. It's definitely been good, obviously, to get the guys out there that are healthy. Getting the chance to coach some new guys, I've actually had to test myself as a position coach to find out drills and ways to keep those guys healthy.

"It's part of spring. You never know who's going to be out there. But the guys that are out there are working hard."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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