NASHVILLE — Lookout Mountain resident and Baylor School product Colton Jumper would never minimize the impact that losing senior quarterback Josh Dobbs to graduation and probably losing defensive end Derek Barnett to the NFL will have on Tennessee's football team next season.
The rising senior linebacker looked across the Nissan Stadium field Friday evening following the Vols' 38-24 victory over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl and said, "It all depends on leadership. We'll have the talent. At Tennessee we'll always have the talent. But will we find leaders like Josh and Cam (Sutton) and Derek next season? If we do, the sky's the limit."
The Music City Bowl was the limit for this 8-4 team (9-4 after the bowl win) following a 5-0 start. With a season opener against Georgia Tech slated for the new Mercedes-Benz Dome in Atlanta, followed by road games at Florida, Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri, the notion that Team 121 can improve on the record of Team 120 might be a stretch.
Yet no less than Dobbs said after the Nebraska win, "I feel like the future is very bright. I'm excited to see what the future holds."
Added Barnett, who is almost certain to be a first-round draft pick if he opts for that path: "We've got lots of talented players (coming back next year)."
Assuming only seniors and Barnett, running back Alvin Kamara and wideout Josh Malone leave among the juniors — and that could be a big assumption — the talent pool might be better than people think. Especially if either Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano (or both) can somewhat capably replace Dobbs at quarterback.
No fewer than 29 players would remain from that two-deep depth chart, and that doesn't include such injured stars as Evan Berry, Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie, as well as place-kicker Aaron Medley and punter Trevor Daniel.
"You never know about next year," said rising senior linebacker Cortez McDowell. "Spring will be important to see what we've got. We need to have a good spring."
Added Jumper: "We've got to find our identity in spring ball."
Yet McDowell believes the talent is certainly there to do that on defense, despite such large Nikes to replace as Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Sutton, Corey Vereen, LaTroy Lewis, Malik Foreman and, most likely, Barnett.
"I think the defense will be great," he said. "A lot of young guys are going to step up — Nigel Warrior, Baylen Buchanan, Darrin Kirkland. We're going to be fine. We showed today what we can do when we're all on the same page."
Especially when that page doesn't keep being dramatically altered for injuries.