Spring game: April 16, 2 p.m. ET

Remember when the biggest question facing the Tennessee football program was how it would cope with the elevated expectations for the 2016 season?

A Title IX lawsuit against the university has raised some serious questions about the program, and that will continue to play out in the coming weeks and months.

On the field, though, the Volunteers have plenty about which to be excited.

While half the league has questions at quarterback, Tennessee returns one of the best and most experienced in the league in Joshua Dobbs.

The recruiting class was solid, and two players who could have left early for the NFL — LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin and CB Cameron Sutton — decided to come back to school.

Seventeen starters return from a 9-4 team that reeled off six straight wins to finish last season. Perhaps no other team in the SEC faces fewer major (on-field) questions than Tennessee.


1. Can the Volunteers find some difference-makers at wide receiver?

First, the good news. Tennessee returns two of its three leading receivers in Josh Malone and Josh Smith. Reserves Preston Williams and Jauan Jennings are also back.

The bad news is that none has demonstrated an ability to be that go-to guy.
Malone, the team’s second-leading receiver, had 31 catches for 405 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but was held under three catches in seven times.
Smith (23 catches, 307 yards, 2 TD) was third in receiving, but never caught more than four passes in a game.
Williams and Jennings learned on the job as freshmen last season, and could push for a larger role this season.
Junior college recruit Jeff George is in for spring, and four more newcomers at the position will arrive in the summer. It’s reasonable to expect heavy competition for playing time at the position all season long.
2. How will Evan Berry and Todd Kelly Jr. fare in full-time roles?A team is in pretty good shape when one of the primary concerns is how a couple of experienced reserves will fare as starters.
Berry posted 18 tackles last season and added on a 100-yard interception return for a score against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. He also returned three kickoffs for touchdowns, so his athleticism is not really in question.
Kelly was fifth on the team with 46 tackles and led the team with three interceptions, so there really shouldn’t be much drop off from LaDarrell McNeil’s departure.
Developing a little depth at the position, however, is a bit of a concern. Micah Abernathy and Stephen Griffin should get the first crack at landing reserve roles.
3. Who will emerge at left tackle?Kyler Kerbyson started his final 26 games at Tennessee all over the offensive line, but spent all 13 games last year at left tackle. He was a steady, experienced player who will be missed.
But the Volunteers have a prime candidate to replace him in redshirt freshman Drew Richmond, a former four-star recruit. He impressed during the bowl practices, which bodes well for his prospects of earning a starting nod this fall.
“We have been very encouraged by the growth and development of Drew Richmond,” coach Butch Jones told FOX Sports. “These practices have been invaluable for him. The defensive line actually took his stripe off yesterday and I think that’s quite a compliment coming from them because he goes against them every day in scouts.
“So I see him progressing. … He continues to get better. And, also, you see a level of confidence continue to grow in him, as well.”


  • DE Jonathan Kongbo: He’s already turning heads in the weight room in Knoxville, and the nation’s top-rated JUCO recruit will look to do the same when spring practice gets underway. The Volunteers have plenty of talent in place on the defensive front, but he’ll be trying to force his way into the rotation.
  • WR Jeff George: George, a JUCO transfer from Dodge City (Kan.) Community College, stands 6-foot-5, plays a position of need and will be on hand for spring camp. He’ll get every chance to impress.
  • CB Marquill Osborne: An early enrollee out of North Carolina, Osborne is projected to compete for a spot in the team’s nickel and dime packages.


  • LT Kyler Kerbyson
  • WR Von Pearson

Kerbyson is a significant loss, but it is offset by the fact that the other four starters on the offensive line return.

Pearson led the team in receiving last fall with 38 receptions for 409 yards and three touchdowns, but the next seven leading receivers on the team all return. Jennings and Williams will compete for his spot in the lineup in the spring, but George and and handful of other newcomers will likely push them until the season opener.


  • DT Owen Williams
  • SS LaDarrell McNeil
  • FS Brian Randolph

Williams posted 35 tackles last fall, but Tennessee has the luxury of plugging in a former five-star recruit in Kahlil McKenzie. McKenzie (24 tackles and a sack) saw plenty of action as a reserve last season, and should fill in nicely.

McNeil and Randolph combined for 101 tackles and four interceptions last season, and their backups, Kelly and Berry will be asked to step into the starting lineup.


Top returning passer: Joshua Dobbs (2,291 yards in 2015)
Top returning rusher: Jalen Hurd (1,288 yards)
Top returning receiver: Josh Malone (405 yards)
Top returning tackler: Jalen Reeves-Maybin (105)
Top returning pass rusher: Derek Barnett (10 sacks)
Top returning pass defender: Todd Kelly Jr. (3 INTs)


With so few players missing from the 2015 squad, there really isn’t a position that has a critical need.

The Volunteers would benefit, however, from the emergence of a true No. 1 receiver. Whether it’s a returnee like Malone, Smith or Williams taking a step up, or a newcomer like George becoming a go-to guy, the team could use a more consistent threat at wide receiver.
George is worth watching. His size alone makes him a possible red zone target.
Fortunately for Tennessee, with the experience on the offensive line and the talent available at running back surrounding Dobbs, the wide receiver question is not one that will need an answer right away.