Tennessee spring practice preview: Five intriguing Vols to watch

Tennessee spring practice preview: Five intriguing Vols to watch

March 1st, 2016 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

UT's Jason Croom is tackled by UTC's Dee Virgin Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

A favorite of his teammates and coaches, redshirting sophomore Rashaan Gaulden is building toward next season with an early return.

A favorite of his teammates and coaches, redshirting...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Tennessee freshman wide receiver Preston Williams looks on during the Vols' open practice at Neyland Stadium on Aug. 15, 2015.

Tennessee freshman wide receiver Preston Williams looks on...

Photo by Patrick Brown /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — It's been a tumultuous couple of weeks for Tennessee's football program.

Actual football is on the horizon, however.

The Volunteers open spring practice next week, and the Times Free Press will preview the key parts of an offseason that so far has been dominated by off-field headlines.

It begins with a look at five intriguing players to watch this spring.

1. Jason Croom

As big as Croom is — he's listed at 6-foot-5 and 246 pounds — it always seemed likely he would one day wind up at tight end, but only for his fifth and final season will he make the switch from wide receiver.

Croom probably will line up in a number of places in Tennessee's offense, and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord now has an offseason to find ways to create mismatches with the jumbo target after Croom sat out last season with lingering knee pain following his December 2014 injury.

The Vols are thin at tight end behind Ethan Wolf, and though Croom probably will be more of a pass-catcher than an in-line blocker, there's plenty of upside in his adjusted position if Tennessee can find the best way to use a player with a large frame and soft hands.

2. Rashaan Gaulden

The third-year defensive back was set to be Tennessee's nickel cornerback last season before he hurt his foot in August and sat out the season, and now, after his nickel replacement Malik Foreman finished the season, it appears he'll have a chance at at replacing the two veteran safeties the Vols lose.

Tennessee's most-improved defensive player last spring, Gaulden is hoping to regain his form from last offseason, when it appeared he was on the verge of a breakout sophomore season.

Gaulden is versatile and talented enough that he could play anywhere in the secondary, and it may be hard to keep him off the field if he returns to the level he reached before his injury.

3. Dillon Bates

The former four-star linebacker came to Tennessee with high hopes given his legacy status, but so far Bates has yet to make the kind of impact many were hoping for.

His health has been the biggest reason why. Bates' freshman season was cut short by a shoulder injury, and it slowed him last preseason. Bates was a fixture on special teams, though, and he could carve out a role on defense with a solid spring.

There's new life of sorts for all of Tennessee's young defenders under new coordinator Bob Shoop, and with the Vols likely to monitor how much work stars Jalen Reeves-Mayin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. get this spring, Bates and other young linebackers such as Austin Smith, Cortez McDowell and Quart'e Sapp will get the chance to take advantage.

4. Preston Williams

Up until about a week before the 2015 season, the question was whether the talented wide receiver would be able to play as a freshman. Though he was cleared after preseason training camp was over, Williams, who also was coming off a serious knee injury, still made an impact despite battling some midseason injuries

The question now is whether the 6-4, 209-pound former five-star recruit will become the kind of playmaker Tennessee needs at receiver.

There's no question the Vols must throw the ball more efficiently in 2016, and Williams is the type of deep threat who could help them accomplish that goal. He also could be effective as a red-zone target and on back-shoulder throws if he and quarterback Josh Dobbs can get their timing down. This spring will be key for one of the team's most unique personalities.

5. Darrell Taylor

Without a doubt, the most exciting Vols coming off redshirt seasons are offensive tackle Drew Richmond (more on him later this week) and Taylor, the defensive end who's generated some buzz dating back to December bowl practices.

How much did Taylor need a few months in the weight room? When defensive line coach Steve Stripling went to see one of his games in Virginia in 2014, Taylor was returning kickoffs for his team.

The former four-star recruit is listed at 230 pounds, but he certainly looked heavier than that in December. With his long arms and quickness, Taylor fits the bill as a speed pass-rusher off the edge. He'll have plenty of eyes on him this spring.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.