KNOXVILLE – Coming off a 5-7 campaign and needing to replace several key pieces, Tennessee begins spring practice on Friday.
Nooga.com will have regular practice updates and other stories throughout the duration of spring practice and to preview, we’ll take a look at both sides of the ball this week. Here’s a look at the offense and today we look at the defense:
*Indicates a player unlikely to go through much, if any, work during spring practice.
Returning: DTs: Danny O’Brien (RS SO); Trevarris Saulsberry* (RS JR); Jason Carr (SO); Allan Carson (RS JR) DEs: Corey Vereen (SO); Jordan Williams (SR); LaTroy Lewis (RS SO); Kendal Vickers (RS FR); Malik Brown (RS FR); Jaylen Miller (SO)
Spring arrivals: DT Owen Williams (RS JR); DE Dimarya Mixon (FR)
Storylines: Much like the offensive line, this is a huge rebuilding job. All four starters are gone and Tennessee must patch together a new unit with players who have primarily seen action as reserves and with new faces. As many as six highly-touted freshmen will be added to the roster over the summer on this unit. Spring will be a final opportunity for some veterans to show that they can compete in the SEC and it will be a chance for Williams and Mixon to get a head start on the other newcomers. It’s also a big spring for underclassmen such as Carr, Vickers, Brown and Miller who were redshirted or played sparingly in 2013.
Depth chart prediction: O’Brien, Carr, Vereen and Jordan Williams are likely the best four returning players available this spring before Saulsberry is healthy and the newcomers step up. Owen Williams, a junior college transfer, will have a good shot to be in the conversation at D-tackle as well. The Vols would like to play 8-10 in their rotation up front in the fall. There will be plenty of opportunities for a lot of players to carve out a role.
Returning: A.J. Johnson (SR); Curt Maggitt (RS JR); Jalen Reeves-Maybin (SO); Kenny Bynum (RS SO); Justin King (RS SO)
Spring arrivals: Jakob Johnson (FR); Neiko Creamer (FR); Colton Jumper (FR)
Storylines: This unit is big on star power, but lacks depth. A.J. Johnson and Maggitt have a chance to be one of the best LB duos in the conference. Johnson gave up an early crack at the NFL and Maggitt is coming off a lingering ACL issue from the 2012 season that also cost him all of 2013. This group can be a strength, especially if the Vols find some depth.
Depth chart prediction: Johnson and Maggitt are starters as long as they’re healthy. Reeves-Maybin is the best guess, at this point, for the third LB when the Vols are in their base 4-3 package. Bynum, King and Jakob Johnson might be the next best three, though, like so many other positions, the influx of talent in the summer will shake this position up from top to bottom.
Returning: Safeties: Brian Randolph* (RS JR); LaDarrell McNeil (JR); Max Arnold (RS JR); Geraldo Orta (RS JR); Lemond Johnson (SO) CBs: Justin Coleman (SR); Cam Sutton (SO); JaRon Toney (RS SR); Devaun Swafford (SO); Riyahd Jones (SR); Malik Foreman (SO); Michael Williams (RS SO)
Spring arrivals: CB D’Andre Payne (FR); CB Emmanuel Moseley (FR)
Storylines: Adding speed and competition are the two big factors that coach Butch Jones hopes will improve this group. Even with Randolph out this spring, there’s a fair amount of experience here. But a unit that has been notoriously slow the past couple of years will be pushed by Payne and Moseley this spring and even more so this summer when several other speedy DBs arrive on campus. There will be some interesting battles between the more experienced veterans and some of the more athletic newcomers.
Depth chart prediction: Sutton and Coleman are the most proven options at CB. McNeil is the only healthy safety with starting experience this spring. Those three should get a lot of the starting reps. Look for the coaching staff to experiment and mix in players such as Foreman, Swafford, Payne and Moseley at corner and to give Arnold and Johnson reps at safety.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga