Although the outbreak of the coronavirus had halted spring football this time last year, Tim Banks still had the comfort of being in his fifth year on the staff at Penn State, which had played in the Rose, Fiesta, Citrus and Cotton bowls the four previous seasons.
The pads are popping this spring, but Banks is removed from his time as co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach of the Nittany Lions and is now in his first few weeks as Tennessee's defensive coordinator under new head coach Josh Heupel. The Volunteers held their third spring practice of the Heupel era Tuesday afternoon.
"I think it's been great," Banks said Tuesday night on a Zoom call. "There is obviously a learning curve for the whole staff as far as getting to know our players and getting to know each other, but we live for challenges. It's kind of what gets you going a little bit.
"Obviously it was a great run at my former place, and I made some lifelong friends, but I'm super excited to be here."
The biggest challenge for Banks out of the gate is at linebacker, with Henry To'o To'o and Quavaris Crouch having entered the NCAA transfer portal more than two months ago and having yet to announce their 2021 intentions. Jeremy Banks is not able to compete in full-contact practices right now, and Tyler Baron is actually getting a look up front.
"I think a lot of it is just work by committee right now," Banks said of his middle line of defense. "All those guys are working extremely hard to try to separate themselves, and today was the first day we put our pads on. As we continue to move through it, we'll have a chance to define some roles better, but right now it's a little bit by committee.
"That can be a good thing, because you're developing some depth."
One player working at linebacker is redshirt freshman Will Albright, who signed with Tennessee as a long-snapper.
When asked if he formulated some sort of depth chart entering spring, Banks said, "We had a standard depth chart, with a lot of that obviously based on what we saw from last year and how it ended. Right now, we're alternating and switching a lot of guys in and out to try and find the best combination we can.
"We've only had three practices, so we haven't been able to switch it up as much as we will."
When offensive coordinator Alex Golesh was asked this past Saturday to single out receivers who are off to a good start this spring, he selected the unexpected tandem of sixth-year senior Velus Jones, the graduate transfer from Southern California, and sophomore Jimmy Calloway. A 6-foot, 190-pounder from Morrow, Georgia, Calloway had just two receptions for 20 yards last season, with a long of 14 at Vanderbilt.
"I think Jimmy Calloway has the right approach every single day," Vols receivers coach Kodi Burns said. "I think he's a kid who's extremely hungry. He was a quarterback in high school, and I think that has translated to the football field as far as being able to pick up the offense really quick and understanding defenses and understanding leverage.
"I think that has played to his favor so far."
While Alabama and Georgia already have multiple five-star commitments for the 2022 recruiting cycle, Tennessee has yet to land the first commitment of any rating under Heupel. The Vols are coming off a 3-7 season and have admitted to multiple NCAA Level I and II violations that occurred under Jeremy Pruitt and the previous staff, so what is the sales pitch during this difficult stretch?
"To be honest, to sell Tennessee is not very hard at all," Burns said. "Tennessee has one of the most storied traditions in college football — the national titles, the SEC championships — and it wasn't that long ago when Tennessee was on the top. The sell is, 'Why would you not want to be a part of getting Tennessee back to the standard of Tennessee football?' You look at the campus, and you look at facilities that are second to none.
"Now there is a style of offense here that once guys see what we're doing in the spring game and this fall and how much we're going to throw the ball and the tempo in which we play with and how different we're going to be offensively from everybody else in the SEC, I don't think that it's going to be a hard sell."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.