Spring Practice: Week one notes

Staff writer Dominic LoBianco reports on Tennessee’s first week of spring practice.

KNOXVILLE,TN - MARCH 08, 2016 - linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin #21 of the Tennessee Volunteers during Spring Football practice in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics

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Despite the off-field distractions, the Tennessee Volunteers were finally able to mute the outside noise and get back to playing football. With three practices under their belts, spring ball is well underway. Here are some takeaways from the first week of spring practice.

Injuries

By our count, the Vols have been without 12 scholarship players this spring so far. The defensive line is taking the brunt of the blows, with the most notable absentee being Derek Barnett. They are also without several other young players on the line, such as Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips, and Andrew Butcher. This is particularly frustrating for Tuttle and Phillips considering both would greatly benefit from a productive spring.

The remaining missing players include Josh Malone, Jashon Robertson, Chance Hall, Joe Young, Evan Berry, Joe Stocstill, and Alexis Johnson.

Newcomers & Position Changes

Although Rashaan Gaulden isn’t a new face on this Volunteers defense, he looks to solidify himself as a leader in the secondary. The redshirt sophomore is working at both safety and nickel after missing all of last season with a foot injury. Wherever he lands, Gaulden is a potential cornerstone for this defense, along with Cam Sutton.

Another position change making waves is Austin Smith’s move from outside linebacker to defensive end. Look for Smith to be utilized in a Curt Maggit-esque role for the Vols defense next season.

First-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has the daunting task of replacing both safety positions after the departures of Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNiel. Sophomore defensive back Micah Abernathy certainly made his case this week. After playing most of last season in the reserve nickel spot, Abernathy worked primarily at safety this week. Due to Berry’s absence this spring, Abernathy, along with Gaulden, Todd Kelly Jr., Stephen Griffin, and early enrollee Desmond Howard, have all split reps.

On the offensive end, former wide receiver Jason Croom is finally healthy enough to make his mark with the tight ends. This move has always been an option for Croom since his large frame calls for added weight. He appears invested in the move as well, which could be a scary sight for Tennessee’s opposition in the fall. Pairing a pass-catching threat like Croom with the veteran Ethan Wolfe will give defense coordinators nightmares.

Another pass catcher making noise is lanky Jeff George. The 6-foot-6 junior college transfer is the ideal red zone target for quarterback Josh Dobbs. Although he looked a little shaky this week, it is safe to assume he is trying to get comfortable in an unfamiliar system. Because the Vols have so few healthy receivers, George will get plenty of reps to build chemistry with Dobbs.

Who Are We Watching?

The easiest answer is redshirt freshman Drew Richmond. With the departure of Kyler Kerbyson last season, Richmond has a clear shot at establishing himself as the left tackle for Tennessee. He has all the physical and mental traits to be successful. Even when he displayed his inexperience on the field, Richmond responded positively all week. 

Two other players to keep an eye on are sophomore wide receivers Preston Williams and Jauan Jennings. Williams struggled all last year trying to stay healthy after tearing his ACL during his freshman season. That coupled with a flagged ACT score in the fall spelt disaster. However, with that behind him, Williams can emerge as a downfield threat for Dobbs. 

Jennings looks for his first full spring at wide receiver as well. Although he was an early enrollee last year, Jennings came in as a quarterback and did not convert to wide receiver until the summer. But regardless of position, he has emerged as a vocal leader on the offense. He brings the kind of energy and competitive edge this team needs.

The next spring practice is scheduled for Tuesday, March 22.

Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Edited by David Bradford

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Dominic is in his second year writing on staff at TNJN. Along with being a staff writer, he also covers the UT men's basketball beat. He is currently a senior at the University of Tennessee majoring in Journalism and Electronic Media. Follow him @dominiclobianco on Twitter!