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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, March 30, 2018

Football can’t arrive soon enough for Vol fans




Thank goodness Tennessee spring football is here. Vol Nation needs a diversion with all that’s happened the past couple of weeks, like the men’s basketball team losing to Loyola-Chicago in the NCAA Tournament’s second round, and Loyola advancing to the Final Four.

And the Lady Vols’ basketball team losing an NCAA home game for the first time ever, also in the second round.

And former football coach Butch Jones taking an off-field job under Alabama coach Nick Saban, who called Jones “an intern, an analyst.”

And former athletic director John Currie, who was relieved of his duties at Tennessee last Dec. 1, settling with the university last week for $2.5 million.

Yes, football can’t get here soon enough. Even if it’s spring football.

New head coach Jeremy Pruitt and his entirely new staff have plenty of work to do this spring since Jones, fired with two games left in the 2017 season, didn’t exactly leave the cupboard stocked.

Pruitt must rebuild a team coming off a historically bad season – losing eight games for the first time in program history and going winless in the SEC for the first time ever.

Spring practices started for the Vols on March 20 and are scheduled to conclude with the April 21 DISH Orange and White Game at Neyland Stadium.

Pruitt says the Orange and White Game will be an actual scrimmage instead of a controlled workout like Jones had during his five-year tenure.

“There’s something about going out in the stadium and playing the game,” Pruitt adds. “One thing that we want to do, from the coaches to the trainers and managers, and everyone in the entire organization, we want to approach the spring game and actually play a game.”

Pruitt is replacing Jones’ spread offense with more of a pro-style offense and switching from Jones’ 4-3 and 4-2-5 defenses to a 3-4 defensive alignment. Notice a pattern? Pruitt, who spent seven seasons under Saban at Alabama, is moving toward a Crimson Tide system in Big Orange Country.

As the Vols conclude their second week of spring practices, the Ledger takes a look at position groups on the offense, with a look at defensive position groups the following week.

Quarterbacks

Redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guarantano is the Vols’ top quarterback this spring, but that doesn’t mean he can secure the starter’s job going into fall camp.

Pruitt is bringing in graduate transfer Keller Chryst from Stanford to compete for the quarterback’s job in 2018 along with Guarantano, sophomore Will McBride and incoming freshman J.T. Shrout. Chryst and Shrout arrive in the summer.

Quinten Dormady, who would have been a senior for the Vols this year, announced in January he planned to complete his degree and transfer to another program as a graduate transfer to play his final season.

Chryst was 11-2 as Stanford’s starting quarterback, going 6-0 in 2016 and 5-2 in ’17. As a junior, Chryst was the backup to Ryan Burns for the first seven games before moving into the starter’s role. Last season, Chryst lost the starting job midway through the season to K.J. Costello.

Chryst threw for 1,926 yards and 19 touchdowns with six interceptions at Stanford while completing 55.3 percent of his passes.

Guarantano has a chance for a fresh start this spring under Pruitt and new offensive coordinator Tyson Helton, but he’s got much to prove on the field and in the locker room.

When Dormady secured the starter’s job in 2017 fall camp, Guarantano sulked and sat alone for much of the season opening win over Georgia Tech, then struggled in spot duty against UMass and Georgia.

Dormady was benched during the Sept. 30 loss to Georgia and replaced by Guarantano. Coming out of an open date with the Vols 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the SEC, Jones announced Guarantano as the starter for South Carolina on Oct. 14. Dormady played briefly against the Gamecocks before opting to have season-ending shoulder surgery later in October.

Guarantano, a dual-threat quarterback from Lodi, New Jersey, was thrust into a difficult situation – behind a poor offensive line and a receiving corps depleted by injuries – and went 1-5 as the starter. He started four consecutive games before suffering an ankle injury against Southern Miss, and McBride, who was on track to redshirt, finished the Southern Miss game and started the next week in the loss to Missouri.

In nine games, Guarantano completed 86 of 139 passes (61.8 percent and only 7.2 yards per attempt) for 997 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.

McBride, a dual-threat quarterback from League City, Texas, completed one pass against Southern Miss, and in his start against Missouri, threw for 139 yards and a touchdown on 16-of-32 passing with two interceptions; he also rushed for the team-high 63 yards, but lost a fumble.

Shrout, a pro-style quarterback from Newhall, California, was a longtime California commitment who flipped to Tennessee on the first day of the December signing period. As a senior at William S. Hart Senior High, Shrout threw for more than 3,000 yards with 27 touchdowns and 25 interceptions.

Tennessee’s move from the spread to a pro-style offense shouldn’t affect Guarantano’s chances of winning the starting job because he’s displayed enough passing abilities to go with his adequate running skills. It depends what he did in the offseason, what he does in the spring, and then fall camp. Perhaps Chryst comes in and wins the job, but it appears to be Guarantano’s job to lose.

Running Backs

John Kelly opted to forgo his senior season at UT and enter the NFL draft after leading the Vols in rushing last season (778 yards, 4.1 average, nine rushing TDs) and catching 37 passes for 299 yards (third-best on the team).

There’s an opening for a running back or two this fall.

Sophomore Ty Chandler of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy appears to be the No. 1 back after a solid freshman year behind Kelly.

The consensus four-star prospect was UT’s second-leading rusher with 305 yards with two touchdowns on 71 carries (4.3-yard average).

Tennessee’s other returning backs are sophomores Tim Jordan and Trey Coleman and redshirt freshman Princeton Fant, while junior Carlin Fils-aime moved from running back to cornerback for the start of spring.

Jordan, meanwhile, had his appendix removed earlier in March and could return near the end of spring practices, according to Pruitt.

Fant, who played at LaVergne High, signed with the Vols as a wide receiver and moved to tight end during his redshirt season in 2017.

Fils-aime was the Vols’ third-leading rusher last year with 215 yards, two TDs, 31 carries, 6.9 average. Jordan ran for 52 yards on 11 carries, a 4.7-yard average. Coleman had no carries last season.

Tennessee’s new staff evaluated the backs and determined it wanted bigger backs, so Pruitt signed one to fit that mold in Jeremy Banks of Cordova High near Memphis. None of UT’s returning backs are 6-feet tall.

Fant is 6-foot-3, 216 pounds.

Banks, 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, is a three-star prospect coming off a big senior season – 194 yards per game and 19 touchdowns.

He’s the only running back in the 2018 class after UT lost commitments from Lyn-J Dixon (to Clemson last December) and Anthony Grant (to Florida State on February Signing Day).

Pruitt also announced earlier in March the signing of graduate transfer Madre London of Michigan State. The 6-1, 218-pound running back rushed for 924 yards, eight touchdowns and averaged 4 yards per carry in four years. London arrives this summer.

Banks and London are wild cards, for now, so Chandler can further lock down the No. 1 tailback spot this spring.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Tennessee’s top receiver, Jauan Jennings, was back in uniform for the Vols last Thursday, although he didn’t take part in the practice. Instead, Jennings worked out off the side of the field with Trey Smith and safety Todd Kelly Jr., among others.

Jennings, who suffered a season-ending wrist injury in the opener, was kicked off the team last November by interim coach Brady Hoke and Currie after Jennings’ social media rant, much of it aimed at Jones and the previous staff.

The four-star safety/quarterback/athlete from Murfreesboro’s Blackman High was the Vols’ second-leading receiver in 2016 (behind Josh Malone of the Cincinnati Bengals) with 40 catches for 580 yards and seven touchdown catches. He’s recovering from a minor knee surgery that will keep him out this spring.

Pruitt says he “absolutely” considers Jennings a part of the team.

“Right now, he’s doing everything we’re asking him to do,” Pruitt adds. “He’s being a good teammate.”

With Jennings out this spring, juniors Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson – the Vols’ top two receivers in 2017 – are the top targets, but other receivers have much to prove.

Johnson had 37 catches for 482 yards and a touchdown last season and Callaway had 24 catches for 406 yards and five TDs. However, no other wide receiver caught more than nine passes.

Sophomore Josh Palmer had nine for 98 yards. Junior Tyler Byrd, a promising talent from Naples (Florida) High, had three catches for 27 yards and a touchdown, but has moved to the defensive secondary this spring.

Sophomore Jordan Murphy caught one pass in 2017 and sophomore Jacquez Jones underwent knee surgery in August and was redshirted. Jones is on the spring roster along with Murphy.

Immediate help is on the way this spring with the addition of January enrollee Alontae Taylor of Coffee County High in Manchester, Tennessee, rated the No. 11 wide receiver in the nation and No. 4 recruit in the state by 247Sports.

Taylor de-committed from the Vols when Jones was fired, and Pruitt was able to lure him back and sign him in December.

UT’s only senior wideouts last year were Josh Smith (five catches, 43 yards) and Jeff George (nine catches, 180 yards, one TD).

January enrollee Jacob Warren, a three-star tight end from Farragut High School in Knoxville, could move to wide receiver because of the Vols’ depth at tight end and his slight build (Warren was 6-6, 211 pounds when signed).

At tight end, Tennessee loses one of its best in years in Ethan Wolf, whose 998 yards in 50 games for his four-year career ranks third-best for a UT tight end behind Reggie Harper and Mychal Rivera.

Jakob Johnson, a senior tight end last year, split time as the backup with third-year sophomore Austin Pope, former Christian Academy of Knoxville standout.

Tennessee has an impact tight end in Dominick Wood-Anderson, who was rated the No. 1 JUCO tight end in the nation by 247Sports.

The transfer from Arizona Western Community College is a former Texas commitment and chose the Vols instead of Alabama and Texas A&M.

At 6-foot-5 and almost 260 pounds, Wood-Anderson fits the bill for what Tennessee’s new staff wants in a tight end – size and strength to immediately help the offense establish a ground game. Wood-Anderson will have a chance to lock down the starting tight end’s job in fall camp.

Only one other returning tight end, sophomore Latrell Bumphus, fits that mold. Bumphus is listed at 6-3, 258 pounds.

Pope, who caught two passes for 9 yards, is 6-4, 230.

Redshirt junior Eli Wolf, brother of Ethan Wolf, was awarded a scholarship in preseason last year and caught three passes for 48 yards. He’s 6-4, 224. Ethan Wolf was 6-6, 258 last year as a senior at Tennessee.

Redshirt freshman Ja’Quain Blakely (6-2, 254 pounds) moved from defensive end to tight end for the start of spring.

Pope, Warren and redshirt freshmen James Brown (222 pounds) played hybrid wide receiver/tight end roles in high school.

Offensive Linemen

UT started spring practices with just seven scholarship offensive linemen who were 100 percent healthy. Four others are out or limited due to injuries or illness.

There were no bigger absentees than two-year starting tackle Chance Hall and freshman All-American guard Trey Smith. Hall missed the 2017 season with a knee injury, had surgery in early March and will be out for several months. Smith, the starter at right guard in 2017, is out with an undisclosed medical issue until the summer at the earliest.

Tennessee lost five offensive linemen with starting experience either during the 2017 season or after it ended: Jashon Robertson (eligibility expired), Brett Kendrick (eligibility expired), Coleman Thomas (eligibility expired), Venzell Boulware (transfer) and Jack Jones (career-ending injury).

Two offensive linemen, redshirt freshman K’Rojhn Calbert and redshirt sophomore Nathan Niehaus, will be limited this spring due to injuries.

Redshirt junior tackle Drew Richmond of Memphis University School is the most game-experienced offensive lineman on the field this spring. He’s played in 16 career games for the Vols with seven starts, six as a redshirt freshman in 2016.

Junior tackle Marcus Tatum has played in six career games with two starts, both last season. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Johnson has played in 12 career games, mostly on special teams, but didn’t play on the offensive line until the Oct. 21 Alabama game last season.

Redshirt sophomore Devante Brooks, a converted tight end, played in four games last year – his first game action since suffering knee injuries as a junior and senior at St. John’s College High in Washington, D.C. Sophomore tackle Riley Locklear played in four games last season.

Pruitt signed a second impact player from Cordova High (along with Banks, the running back) in four-star offensive tackle Jerome Carvin, a January enrollee with huge opportunity this spring.

Carvin was uncommitted when Pruitt was hired at Tennessee and chose the Vols over Mississippi State, Florida, UCLA and Auburn, among others.

Three-star offensive guard Ollie Lane of Knoxville Gibbs High, who committed to the previous staff, also signed in December and, according to Pruitt, has already benefitted from the offseason weight program going into spring practices.

With the thin unit, new offensive line coach Will Friend has his work cut out this spring.

“Yes, we need more numbers,” Pruitt says. “We have all talked about that, and we are behind.

“We need more offensive linemen. We have guys that will be back in the fall who are out now, so that will help.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.