Trey Smith (Offensive tackle)
Arguably the most hyped prospect of the Butch Jones era, five-star early enrolleee and straight-up behemoth in the trenches, Trey Smith, put on an impressive showing Saturday.
He didn’t play at his natural position of left tackle. Instead, he routinely dominated interior defensive linemen as a right guard.
While it’s true Tennessee is currently depleted at defensive tackle (Shy Tuttle, Khalil McKenzie Jr. and Kendall Vickers were all out due to injury), thus potentially devaluing Saturday’s showing, Smith still outperformed his freshman label by a considerable margin.
The technical improvements were obvious. His footwork was stable and he rarely allowed his assignment to gain leverage. Obviously, Smith’s natural strength is his biggest asset, but against the nation’s top defensive linemen, he’ll have to use more brain than brawn.
There were a few deer-in-headlight moments when he was asked to block up-field, but Smith’s progress and inclusion on the offensive line this early is a development to keep an eye on.
Nigel Warrior (Defensive back)
Warrior was described by defensive coordinator Bob Shoop as the “best player” during spring practice.
Those high remarks for the rising sophomore were verified by a strong performance on Saturday.
Warrior played the safety role to perfection. He flew around the field and recorded four tackles, while also showcasing his skills in coverage. He was also solid in coverage, and although he allowed a downfield completion to Ethan Wolfe, that had more to do with Dormady’s excellent throw than poor coverage.
It’s clear Warrior knows how to navigate space when pursuing the ball. What he’ll have to improve upon is navigating space in coverage, an area where defensive backs often go to die.
Darrell Taylor (Defensive end)
Darrell Taylor is known more for his infamous Battle at Bristol quote “We gon whip they fu**in a**” than his play. But now that it’s his time to shine, Taylor can no longer hide behind the mystique of creating an era-defining hashtag. And by era defining, I mean a brief period in September when Tennessee was actually good enough to warrant using the hashtag #WGWTFA.
Only seven months after that quote, Taylor began receiving comparisons to Derek Barnett, who only happens Tennessee’s all-time leader in sacks, a record previously held by the legendary Reggie White.
It’s a stretch, but Taylor is off to a positive start. He recorded two sacks during the Orange and White game, but his motor and ability to bend off the edge the way Barnett did is still TBD.
Jauan Jennings (Wide receiver)
There’s no bigger skeptic of Jauan Jennings than me, and Saturday did absolutely nothing to dispel my discomforts with Jennings as a No. 1 wide receiver.
Yes, Jennings has a knack for the “moment.” Two of the Vols’ most memorable plays from last season belong to him — his 64-yard touchdown reception over Teez Tabor and his iconic Hail Mary snag against Georgia.
But as a route runner, Jennings leaves a lot to be desired.
He’s a physical specimen who can box out like a center, but can’t run the route tree. Eventually, the endzone fades — one of football’s shockingly low-percentage plays that should go extinct immediately — must be paired with an arsenal of routes that can help Jennings create separation from defensive backs.
On Saturday, Jennings caught his patented fade in the endzone, as well as a pair of simple, short routes to the outside. But on routes deeper than five yards, Jennings didn’t look the part of a No. 1 wide receiver. Rather, he resembled the classic case of a No. 2 receiver struggling to be the guy. It can’t be understated how valuable Josh Malone was to Tennessee’s passing game last season. With Malone gone to the NFL, defenses can primarily focus on Jennings, especially when the receivers behind him are a hodgepodge of question marks.
Carlin Fils-Aime (Running back)
Carlin Fils-Aime’s claim to fame is the bone-headed fumble he caused during Tennessee’s stunning loss to South Carolina last season.
His lack of awareness cost the Vols a shot at the SEC East, but with that play in the rearview mirror, as well as the departures of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, Fils-Aime’s exhilarating burst is now the counterbalance to John Kelly’s ruthless running style.
The blink-and-you’ll-miss moments of roadrunner speed were few and far between for the sophomore during the Orange and White game, but that had more to do with the offensive line failing to establish an edge.
Still, Fils-Aime must develop a knack for creating his own space and using his burst to take advantage of rapidly closing gaps.
Daniel Bituli (Linebacker)
Similar to the defensive line, very few know what to expect from the linebackers this season. Darrin Kirkland Jr. is the unit’s foundation in the middle, but the edges remain a concern.
Daniel Bituli has work to do before Butch entertains the idea of starting him — he’s raw and unprepared for consistent dosages of regular season action. With that being said, on Saturday, no defensive player was mentioned more than he was.
He was hyper-aggressive, tenacious, omnipresent, quick, whatever you want to call it. Wherever the herd of defenders charged, Bituli was always in the middle of it. While the stat sheet won’t blow anybody away (4 tackles, 2 of them solo), Bituli passed the eye test with flying colors.