KNOXVILLE -- With the Tennessee Volunteers, ranked 25th in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll released Thursday, nearing the start of preseason football practice Tuesday, the Times Free Press is setting the stage for a much-anticipated 2015 season with a "Five for '15" preview series, which continues today with a look at some second-year players who could have breakout seasons.
* Tennessee's most important games of upcoming season
* Possible second-year surgers for Tennessee Vols
* Tennessee's non-freshman impact newcomers
* Tennessee Vols' impact freshmen
* UT Vols' most intriguing camp competitions
* Tennessee's most valuable players
1. WR JOSH MALONE
During a two-game stretch last October, it looked like the former five-star recruit was turning a corner. He had a career-best five-catch, 75-yard game at Ole Miss and caught his first touchdown pass against Alabama a week later. Then multiple nagging injuries made for a frustrating freshman season for Malone.
Now he has one season and two spring practices under his belt. His natural ability is pretty obvious, and aspects of his game such as drive and technique should start catching up to his physical talent. Tennessee has enough quality receivers that Malone shouldn't have to put up big numbers, but he needs to become more reliable.
The Vols can't complain about the talent they have at wide receiver, with or without the suspended Von Pearson. The unit wasn't healthy last season, and Marquez North, Jason Croom and Josh Smith all weren't 100 percent during the spring. If Malone and the rest of Zach Azzanni's group can live up to its talent, Tennessee could be pretty potent on offense.
2. CB RASHAAN GAULDEN
Back in the spring, the Vols appeared to be pretty excited about unleashing Rashaan Gaulden at the nickel cornerback spot, a vital one in coordinator John Jancek's defense, and he earned the spring award for most improved player despite missing the final week to have surgery on the broken hand he suffered covering a kickoff in his collegiate debut.
After making an impact on special teams as a freshman, the hope is the 6-foot-1, 173-pounder from the Nashville area can have similar success that Jalen Reeves-Maybin did as a first-year defensive starter at linebacker last season.
Tennessee groomed Gaulden for the position last season by having him room with Justin Coleman in the team hotel the nights before games, and he possesses the speed, physical dimension and instincts to be able to defend the opponents' slot receivers — the Vols were victimized a few times by them — and help in run support.
3. OL JASHON ROBERTSON
It's not easy for an offensive guard to "break out," per se — especially one who was an All-SEC freshman team selection in 2014 — but if any guard can do it, it's probably Robertson.
Even as a freshman, the one-time defensive tackle might have been Tennessee's best offensive lineman. He was the only one to start every game at the same spot, and he's made key strength gains this offseason. Robertson, who turned 19 in March, is one of the strongest players on the team. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 33 times in the winter.
The 6-3, 304-pounder was able to add some versatility to his game when he worked at center in spring practice, but he's best suited at guard. The Vols have the potential to become an elite rushing team with their talent at quarterback and running back. The offensive line must do its part, and Robertson could be a big part of that equation.
4. LB DILLON BATES
Cortez McDowell, Tennessee's top special-teams tackler as a freshman last season who had a solid spring, earned heavy consideration for this spot, but Bates' potential to help the Vols at middle linebacker ultimately won out.
Officially a redshirt freshman, Bates had a first season that lasted just four games due to a torn labrum that required surgery, and the 6-3, 222-pounder wasn't fully recovered from the injury and battled an illness that limited him in spring practice.
When he arrived last summer, Bates impressed those in the program with his mental sharpness and ability to learn quickly, two components that should help whether he winds up at middle linebacker or one of the outside spots.
He'll factor into the mix in the middle with junior Kenny Bynum and freshman Darrin Kirkland. The key at that spot is the ability to get the defensive aligned properly and bring a physical presence against the run. If he's healthy, Bates has the capability to do both, and a strong August could pave the way for an impact season.
5. DE/LB CHRIS WEATHERD
Weatherd is a senior, but 2015 will be his second year at Tennessee. The mid-July arrival from junior college still managed to find his way on the field last season in one of the Vols' sub packages defensively. His speed and athletic ability prompted Tennessee's coaching staff to get him on the field, and he found a spot in a 3-3-5 passing-down look.
In his second year with the Vols, can Weatherd expand his role and increase his production?
The 6-4, 225-pounder recorded just 12 tackles, three for loss and 2.5 sacks last season, but that was in a limited role.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.