Next men up: 5 biggest holes to fill in Tennessee's 2018 starting lineup
KNOXVILLE — It’s never too early to look ahead at what pieces are in place and what areas need to be addressed for the 2018 season, especially since Jeremy Pruitt is new and spring practices will be here soon.
The offseason starts with players becoming accustomed to new strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald. It will also be interesting to see if there is any attrition with players not being able to handle his strength program, which started Tuesday.
Of more concern to Vols fans, the new staff must replace 21 players, led by running back John Kelly, defensive back Rashaan Gaulden and defensive lineman Kahlil McKenzie, who all entered the NFL Draft early.
The question is: Who’s ready to replace them?
Let’s take a look at the holes and the candidates.
Losing five players is not ideal, but with Pruitt’s track record of coaching defense, he will have pieces to work with this spring to try and place his players in the right position.
Todd Kelly Jr., Marquill Osborne, Nigel Warrior, Baylen Buchanan, MaLeik Gatewood, Micah Abernathy, Maleik Gray, Shawn Shamburger, Theo Jackson, Terrell Bailey and Cheyenne Labruzza all return. Wide receiver Tyler Byrd has already updated his Twitter bio listing him as a defensive back, a position he seemed to want to play under Butch Jones, but was not granted.
Tennessee will host 5-star corner back Isaac Taylor-Stuart on Feb. 2, 3-star safety Nikko Hall on Jan. 26, and hosted 3-star corner back Eddie Smith on Jan. 13.
Losing John Kelly will hurt, but new OC Tyson Helton must move on.
The Vols can overcome his loss if returning backs Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, Carlin Fils-aime and Trey Coleman take the next step.
Chandler and Jordan are 5-11, 195-pound backs who can run inside with power and speed but also get to the edge. Coleman is a bigger body at 5-11, 214 pounds who can contribute in short-yardage situations. Fils-aime showed signs of improving late in the season.
Jeremy Banks signed in the Early Signing Period. Banks, 6-2, 215 pounds, and could become a factor as a freshman.
Tennessee also is in pursuit to flip Georgia Tech running back commit C’Bo Flemister, who visited UT on Jan. 13. Maurice Washington is another back that Tennessee is scheduled to have visit Jan. 19.
Four-year starter Ethan Wolf will be missed. His departure makes for this competition a priority. Ethan’s brother Eli will be looked at to step up, along with Austin Pope, James Brown and LaTrell Bumphus.
The nation’s No. 1 JUCO tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson signed with Tennessee in the Early Signing Period along with Jacob Warren. Warren could be destined to redshirt to build toward a bigger frame to play in the SEC.
Trevor Daniel leaves after punting for 9,185 yards with an average of 45.9 yards per punt. His consistency will be missed, but the Vols may have an answer with early enrollee punter and kicker Paxton Brooks.
Brooks is 6-5, 170 pounds who can punt, kick off and kick field goals. He is well-rounded. Brent Cimaglia could begin the spring and fall as the starter for kicking duties, but Brooks is one that can can provide immediate impact replacing Daniel as the starting punter.
In Pruitt’s two media availabilities, he stressed that being successful in the SEC starts with being dominant up front on both sides of the ball. So far, Pruitt has recruited accordingly, signing four offensive linemen and four defensive linemen in December.
Without any doubt, Trey Smith is the leader of the offensive line unit that returns Marcus Tatum, Drew Richmond, Nathan Niehaus, Ryan Johnson, Devante Brooks, Chance Hall, Riley Locklear and K’Rojhn Calbert. Hall remains questionable with a knee injury and makes it even more important for others to step up and replace Coleman Thomas, Jashon Robertson, Brett Kendrick and Jack Jones (career injury) on the offensive line.
Offensive linemen Jerome Carvin, Jahmir Johnson (JUCO), Tanner Antonutti and Ollie Lane (early enrollee) have signed in the 2018 class.
On the defensive line, only Kendal Vickers and Kahlil McKenzie have to be replaced, but Pruitt would like as many options as possible to run different schemes this fall.
Darrell Taylor, Jonathan Kongbo, Paul Bain, Alexis Johnson, Ja’Quain Blakely, Brandon Benedict, Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips, Quay Picou, Deandre Johnson, Eric Crosby, Ryan Thaxton, Matthew Butler and Kivon Bennett all return. Greg Emerson (early enrollee), Brant Lawless, Jordan Allen (JUCO, early enrollee) and Kingston Harris (early enrollee) have signed in the 2018 class.
Pruitt and staff had defensive end Kurott Garland visit on Jan. 13. Defensive end John Mincey is scheduled to visit Jan. 20, defensive end Caleb Okechukwu and defensive tackle Coynis Miller are scheduled to visit Jan. 26. Defensive end Malik Langham is scheduled to visit Feb. 2.