- Chris Low, College Football
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Schedule: The Vols open spring practice Tuesday at 4:20 p.m. ET. They will practice Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday of each week. The Orange & White spring game is scheduled for April 25 at 4 p.m. ET at Neyland Stadium and will air on the SEC Network alternate channel.
What’s new: Staff continuity had been a staple under Butch Jones, but offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian left for the NFL following last season and will be the quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jones brought in one of his mentors, Mike DeBord, to replace Bajakian as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. DeBord was most recently at Michigan in an administrative role. Before that, he coached in the NFL for five seasons as a tight ends coach and assistant offensive line coach. He served two different stints as the Michigan offensive coordinator, from 2006-07 and 1997-99. DeBord was also the head coach at Central Michigan from 2000-03, and Jones was a member of that staff as offensive coordinator.
On the mend: It’s a who’s who for Tennessee in terms of players who will either miss the spring or be limited because of injury. That number is somewhere around 15, prompting Jones to say this offseason would be the most challenging he’s had with all the players recovering from surgery. Among the players out: defensive end Derek Barnett, defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt, defensive tackle Danny O’Brien, linebacker Jakob Johnson, offensive guard Marcus Jackson and receiver Jason Croom. Among the players who will be limited: receiver Marquez North, running back Jalen Hurd and defensive end Corey Vereen.
New faces: The Vols have 10 members from their 2015 signing class on campus and eligible for spring ball, although a few are injured and won’t be able to practice. Junior-college running back Alvin Kamara, who started his career at Alabama, is expected to team with Hurd to give Tennessee an explosive one-two punch in the backfield. Two quarterbacks finishing high school early, Quinten Dormady and Jauan Jennings, will get a head start this spring on competing for the backup job. Dormady is the more polished passer of the two and a little bit ahead at this point, but Jennings is a big-time athlete. Shy Tuttle and Kyle Phillips were both ESPN 300 defensive line prospects and could be in line for early playing time. Phillips (shoulder) will miss the spring. Darrin Kirkland Jr. (pectoral muscle) is also out this spring, but he could make a run for the starting middle linebacker job once he’s healthy. Freshman Jack Jones is another early enrollee to watch at offensive tackle.
Question marks: Solidifying the offensive line and settling on who plays where is one of the most pressing question marks. The Vols also need to develop depth up front offensively. They gave up an SEC-high 43 sacks last season. Touted true freshman Drew Richmond doesn’t arrive until this summer, but he will get a serious look as the starter at right tackle. Whoever wins the middle linebacker job is going to be inexperienced. Redshirt freshman Dillon Bates had his season cut short a year ago by a torn labrum and is day-to-day this spring. Kirkland, a true freshman, is on the shelf this spring with a torn pectoral muscle and will also be in that mix. The defensive line is depleted with injuries this spring, so even though there’s some young talent on the way, there won’t be a lot of immediate answers there, and it's anybody's guess who will be the Vols' punter.
Key battle: The Vols have to find a left tackle. The favorite right now is redshirt senior Kyler Kerbyson, who made starts last season at left tackle, right tackle and left guard. Dontavius Blair was the Vols’ marquee junior-college signee in the offensive line last year, but he simply wasn’t ready and redshirted. The 6-8, 300-pound Blair has made strides physically and is in much better shape. He’ll get a chance to show this spring that he can handle everything that comes with being a left tackle in the SEC.
Breaking out: Cortez McDowell was a safety coming out of high school, but has moved to outside linebacker and has the speed and tackling ability to be a star. He led the Vols in special teams tackles last season as a true freshman. Turning to offense, 6-3, 204-pound receiver Josh Malone is poised for a big sophomore season, and if he does take off, the Vols could be scary good at receiver.
Don’t forget about: While the race is on at middle linebacker, junior Jalen Reeves-Maybin returns as one of the more underrated players in the SEC at weak side linebacker. The 6-1, 230-pound Reeves-Maybin tied for the team lead in total tackles with 101 and was third on the team with 11 tackles for loss. He had a career-high 13 tackles in the TaxSlayer Bowl win over Iowa and is a leader for this team both on and off the field.
All eyes on: The expectations for the Vols in 2015 seemingly get bigger by the day, and the same goes for junior quarterback Josh Dobbs. He’s even been mentioned in some periphery Heisman Trophy conversation. Is he ready to become that kind of quarterback? He’s certainly attacked the offseason and is pushing to make this his team. Dobbs was the difference for the Vols late last season with his escapability. The next step is becoming a more consistent passer. If he does and becomes the “CEO” that Jones wants him to become at quarterback, Tennessee could find itself in the middle of the SEC Eastern Division race in 2015.
The Vols open spring practice Tuesday. Here's what you need to know about.