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Tennessee defensive backs Todd Kelly Jr., right, and Justin Martin break up a pass to Georgia split end Malcolm Mitchell during last season's game in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee followed up a top-five football signing class in 2014 with another one last year, and many of those players contributed as freshmen in 2015.

Some could be poised for breakout second seasons for the Volunteers.

The class has the quality and quantity to form Tennessee's core for 2016 and beyond, but now the Vols need some of those early contributors to step into even bigger roles.

Nearly all of those second-year players will receive plenty of work during Tennessee's spring practices, which begin this afternoon following an 11 a.m. news conference by coach Butch Jones.

At positions where the Vols are stocked with veterans, younger players could see increased reps. Running back John Kelly figures to get as many carries as he can handle. Quarterbacks Quinten Dormady and Sheriron Jones, plus any linebacker not named Jalen Reeves-Maybin or Darrin Kirkland Jr. all fit that bill.

Here's a look at five second-year players who could emerge during the offseason.

1. Justin Martin

It took about half the season for the junior college transfer to settle into Tennessee's defense and take over as a starting cornerback. The reason was an injury in early August that essentially sapped the Nashville native's entire preseason. Due to the missed time, Martin fell behind physically and mentally.

By the end of the season, though, Martin was a reliable player who never seemed to shy away from having opponents throw at him with Cameron Sutton on the other side. The 6-foot-1, 183-pound Martin may continue to split time with Emmanuel Moseley, but he's got more intrigue and upside.

2. Kahlil McKenzie

Coaches were pleased with the development of the big defensive tackle during his freshman season, and the Vols hope the former five-star prospect takes the next step as a sophomore.

This spring is important for McKenzie, who needs as much work as he can get. The 6-foot-3, 344-pounder didn't play his senior year of high school, and he missed a handful of preseason camp sessions. As a reserve in 2015, he still finished with 24 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble.

The next step for McKenzie is becoming a disruptive force in the middle of the defensive line.

3. Jauan Jennings

Amid speculation the former quarterback would make another switch to play defense, it appears Jennings will remain at wide receiver, where Tennessee's need is greater. Jennings' exploits on the kickoff coverage unit suggested playing safety might be in his future, but if those plans existed, they're on hold now.

He is one of four returning wide receivers to catch a pass last season, and this spring will be key for him to continue his progress. His mindset and toughness are ideal, but Jennings still has strides to take in terms of becoming a polished, consistent wideout.

4. Jack Jones

After enrolling early, Jones was able to help the offensive line as a freshman. He appeared in nine games, played a vital role off the bench in the win against Georgia and started at Alabama. Hopes are high for Jones and Chance Hall after their freshman seasons and for Venzell Boulware and Drew Richmond after they redshirted.

For Jones, this offseason is a key chance for him to add strength. Depending on the health of Jashon Robertson, Jones should receive plenty of reps at guard this spring, and he could get some work at center, too. In Jones, Boulware and redshirt sophomore Charles Mosley, Tennessee has some nice options to use younger players on the interior offensive line.

5. Quart'e Sapp

The former four-star recruit split time in practice between linebacker and safety and contributed on special teams during his freshman season, which was cut short after four games because of foot surgery.

It's a big spring for Sapp and Tennessee's other young linebackers as they hope to impress new coordinator Bob Shoop. Sapp is intriguing because his skills could translate into the "Star" position in Shoop's scheme. It's a hybrid linebacker/safety position the coordinator used at Vanderbilt and Penn State, his previous coaching stops.

Given the strength of Tennessee's secondary compared to how unproven most of its linebackers are, though, Shoop may be more inclined to play more of a true five-defensive back base defense.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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