KNOXVILLE – Tennessee senior and Ooltewah native Jacques Smith has been fighting to move from contributor to high-level SEC player for the past three years in Knoxville.
Now the 6-foot-2, 245-pound defensive end has one more hurdle in his way as he gears up for his final season at UT – a fractured thumb.
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones announced the injury, which was sustained Tuesday night, at the conclusion of Wednesday’s practice. Smith is expected to miss 4-6 weeks.
“It’s adversity,” said senior defensive end Corey Miller. “It happens every day. Guys go down, guys have to step up. I feel like we reacted very well today in practice. Everybody came to play today.”
Miller is the most likely candidate to step in at Smith’s position while he rehabs his broken right thumb. Other options include junior Jordan Williams, redshirt freshman LaTroy Lewis and true freshman Corey Vereen. Senior Marlon Walls is the projected starter at the other end spot.
Vereen, however, has a health concern of his own to deal with. The converted linebacker will undergo an MRI on Thursday on his knee to determine if there’s any structural damage. There’s no timetable on his injury yet.
“It doesn’t change things a bit,” Miller said of the banged-up unit. “Everybody on the defensive line has to be able to play any given position on any day. We’ve known that since Day 1. If anybody goes down, it’s not a big deal.”
It’s too early to forecast how much, if any, game time Smith will lose, but four weeks of missed time would force him to miss only the opener against Austin Peay on Aug. 31, while the full six weeks would mean he would miss the first three games against Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and Oregon.
“We have some veterans at that position,” Jones said. “Corey Miller and Marlon Walls have played a lot of football here. I’ve talked about depth, and individuals have to step up.”
Other injuries: Linebackers Curt Maggitt (knee) and Christian Harris (knee) along with safety LaDarrell McNeil (hamstring) were practicing in non-contact jerseys Wednesday night. Safety Byron Moore (hamstring) and receivers Josh Smith and Paul Harris all worked with trainers on the side.
Quarterback Nathan Peterman didn’t go through any passing drills. Jones said there’s no injury concern there, but he will give quarterbacks off days throughout camp to rest their arms.
Notes & Observations:
• Senior cornerback Naz Oliver has left the program, UT confirmed on Wednesday night. The redshirt senior appeared in just one game (in 2012) during his UT career and was not listed on the preseason depth chart this year despite UT’s depth concerns at cornerback. He becomes the fourth scholarship cornerback to leave the program since last year, joining Daniel Gray, Eric Gordon and Deion Bonner.
• With Peterman resting his arm, the freshman quarterbacks got more reps in practice, and Jones liked what he saw from Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson."[I am] very encouraged by our two freshman quarterbacks," Jones said."They continue to progress. We put them in some stressful situations tonight, I really like the way they are developing."
• The Vols did more 1-on-1 blocking drills on Wednesday, similar to what they did on Tuesday. Jones kept score as the defensive backs and receivers went head-to-heard. After falling behind, the defensive backs made a huge comeback to ‘win’ the drill. Brian Randolph beat Jacob Carter in the deciding rep. Freshman receiver Ryan Jenkins and sophomore receiver Jason Croom had several good reps during the drill. Redshirt freshman Drae Bowles struggled in it.
• One new face at practice was preferred walk-on tight end Greg Tisho. The 6-foot-2, 232-pound freshman from Cherokee, N.C., will wear No. 89 on offense (freshman end Jaylen Miller wears that number on defense). Tisho made 66 receptions for 1,441 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior in high school and opted to walk-on at UT rather than accept a scholarship at a smaller school.
• Tennessee also confirmed that preferred walk-on offensive lineman Brett Dockery has left the program.
• The Vols will not have practice on Thursday. It will be the first day off of practice since camp started last Friday.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga