Ranking Tennessee's position groups in terms of depth concerns
Last week, we wrote a story projecting Tennessee’s two-deep depth chart for the season opener on Sept. 5 against Mid-American Conference school Bowling Green in Nashville. The Vols are three-touchdown favorites, by the way.
There has been one major injury since that story was written: likely starting nickel back Rashaan Gaulden was lost for the season to a broken foot suffered during a punt return drill. It’s possible injuries could still happen ahead of next Saturday, but hopefully that’s all in the past for now.
Thus here are my rankings of UT’s positions, from the ones with the most depth concerns to the least.
Look, unless there’s an experienced backup, this should be No. 1 on any team in the country. There are multiple players on the offensive line, running back, receiver, each level of the defense. There’s only one quarterback. Starter Joshua Dobbs has been injury-free in camp, and that’s obviously huge. Injuries at the position forced the Vols coaches to burn Dobbs’ redshirt as a freshman and sophomore. Dobbs’ backup is freshman Quinten Dormady, beating out fellow freshman Sheriron Jones. UT’s fourth QB, freshman Jauan Jennings, has been moved to receiver.
2. OFFENSIVE LINE
Starting guard Marcus Jackson and reserve Austin Sanders have been lost for the season. This was the weakest unit as it was on the team in 2014. The right side of Jashon Robertson and Coleman Thomas are sophomores and still learning on the job. There’s little experience in the second unit.
The bright side of Tennessee largely playing a 4-2-5 scheme is obviously the need for one fewer linebacker. And defensive end Curt Maggitt will line up at outside linebacker at times. Still, there’s little doubt the loss of 2014 leading tackler A.J. Johnson will be felt here. Jalen Reeves-Maybin has one spot locked down. His backup is sophomore Cortez McDowell. In the middle, redshirt junior Kenny Bynum, redshirt freshman Dillon Bates and true freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. are still competing. Obviously two of those guys have no college experience. And the group lost linebacker Jakob Johnson as he has switched to tight end.
4. RUNNING BACK
The Vols are set with Jalen Hurd and JUCO transfer Alvin Kamara. While Kamara was a touted recruit and starred at a Kansas Community College, we still don’t know whether he can play big-time college football. Redshirt sophomore Jayson Sparks, Cincinnati senior transfer Ralph Abernathy IV and freshmen Joe Young and John Kelly Jr. are competing for the No. 3 spot.
This is a good, veteran-laden group. But obviously losing Gaulden hurts the depth. In addition, JUCO transfer Justin Martin only returned to practice this week after missing a bit more than a week due to a knee strain. Martin might have been a candidate to start at the nickel but is behind. “You don’t want to overload him,” coach Butch Jones said this week to the Knoxville News Sentinel. “First of all, it’s getting back in shape and working the fundamentals and the details. It’s still going to be a long process for him.”
6. TIGHT END
Ethan Wolf is the unquestioned starter, but the depth here got better with the move of the linebacker Johnson to the position. He didn’t even play the position in high school. Senior Alex Ellis, who caught six balls for 115 yards in 2014, is Wolf’s backup.
It’s a very deep group right now but a few guys have been banged up in camp — starter Marquez North missed over a week with a knee strain — and some of those guys have a history of injuries. The receiving group was devastated by season-ending injuries in 2014 so maybe it’s due some good luck.
8. DEFENSIVE LINE
This is the second-best group in the SEC potentially with preseason All-SEC players Derek Barnett and Maggitt as well as five-star tackle Kahlil McKenzie. Add in fellow freshmen Kyle Phillips and Shy Tuttle and veterans such as Owen Williams, Corey Vereen and Danny O’Brien and this group will be the envy of the SEC East.
9. SPECIAL TEAMS
It’s obviously rare for a placekicker or punter to suffer an injury, but it happens — especially if they are forced to make a touchdown-saving tackle. Redshirt junior George Bullock backs up kicker Aaron Medley. Bullock hasn’t attempted a field goal in a game but did have 10 kickoffs last season. Meanwhile, freshman Tommy Townsend backs up punter Nate Renfro. Townsend, from the Orlando area, was one of the nation’s top recruits at the position in this class.