KNOXVILLE – Few have accused this Tennessee team of not having any good players on its roster.
The Vols just don’t have enough of them.
Therein lies the problem for a team preparing for the SEC grind. It’ll be all SEC action for the rest of the year for Tennessee and that starts with a brutal three-game stretch against three teams currently ranked in the top 13 of the AP poll, No. 6 Georgia, No. 1 Alabama and No. 13 South Carolina.
"Right now we have some major depth issues and I think it is starting to be revealed,” said coach Butch Jones. “I think it is starting to show itself.”
That lack of depth began to manifest itself over the past few weeks. The Vols scored first against Oregon and Florida before ultimately falling in those contests. Even against South Alabama, a Sun Belt program, the Vols seemed to fade. A 31-7 lead turned into a 31-24 thriller that came down to the wire.
That’s not to suggest that the Jaguars had more depth than the Vols, but, clearly, the Vols didn’t have a loaded two-deep depth chart that allowed them to keep the pedal down against South Alabama for 60 minutes.
The overall lack of depth leaves UT with two options. The Vols can either leave their starters on the field for an inordinate amount of time, or force younger and sometimes unprepared players onto the field in crucial situations. Thus far, they’ve had to do some of both, but the first option has been a go-to solution several times.
“We had two individuals who had monumental games for us [against South Alabama],” said Jones. “A..J. Johnson took 83 snaps at linebacker, Dontavis Sapp took 82 snaps at linebacker plus 12 snaps on special teams. Every single rep you take accumulates over time throughout the course of the grind of along season.
“That is where we are at and we have to continue to recruit and develop depth upon our football team. We have too many individuals playing way to many reps. Both our starting corners [Cam Sutton and Justin Coleman] were in the high 70s in the terms of repetitions on Saturday. And again throughout the course of a long season that can't happen.”
Added Sapp: "It's always great to have depth, but I also have to credit our offseason conditioning program for getting me in shape to play so much."
How did it get this way for UT? There are plenty of factors. Coaching change, ineffective recruiting, early entries to the NFL draft and a few untimely injuries and eligibility issues have all contributed. Take, for example, cornerback. Since the end of the 2012 season, the Vols had four players leave who had eligibility remaining.
Conversely, teams like Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina are relatively well-stocked at virtually every position and boast plenty of experience as well.
“[Georgia’s] offense, a lot of these guys are seniors or juniors, they're a veteran group,” said Jones. “They've been in big games before and they play like it. They have a lot of confidence.
“Coach (Mark) Richt has been there a number of years. He's been able to grow and develop that depth through the recruiting process. He's a done a great job with it. Building depth takes time. It takes years and years to get that depth and they definitely have it."
• Out: WR Devrin Young, TE Alex Ellis, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, TE Justin Meredith, TE Joseph Ayres, WR Ryan Jenkins, QB Nathan Peterman
• Limited: RB Rajion Neal, RB Marlin Lane, TE Brendan Downs, TE A.J. Branisel, WR Drae Bowles, S Brian Randolph
Neal and Lane were both at practice, but neither was actively participating in football drills during the open portion. Neal, who had a green jersey on, was running with trainers on the side, while Lane was on the stationary bike. Jones said that Lane remains "day-to-day."
• The first taste of the Smokey gray uniforms could be seen at practice. A majority of the players were wearing their gray and orange cleats, likely to break them in for Saturday. Coach Butch Jones was also wearing a gray pullover.
• Quarterback Justin Worley continues to get all of the first-team reps, while freshman Riley Ferguson works with the second team.
• The tight end position continues to be banged up. Brendan Downs, A.J. Branisel and Woody Quinn are the only three healthy scholarship options at that spot. Of those three, two – Branisel and Downs – were wearing green, non-contact jerseys on Tuesday. Neither is expected to miss time, but it’s a group having a hard time staying 100-percent healthy.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga