Next week the SEC Media Days start. The annual Big Orange Picnic in Davidson County is on Tuesday evening. To me the Media Days and Picnic have always represented the start of the Football Season and the real countdown to Kickoff starts. I want to take a look at the Vols and reflect on where I think they are relative to the past few years and the potential for the coming year. I have listened, watched, and read as much as I could over the past three months since the O&W Game to get ready for Fall Practice.
Historically, the Summer has been a trap time for teams. Players get lost for a multitude of reasons. The Vols have lost three players from last year’s team this Summer with two transferring to look for more playing time and one still on campus but in academic purgatory. One DT remains in school suspended from the team awaiting the outcome of a sexual assault charge. We have a small incoming class with 21 signees and it appears that there will be one loss to the JUCO ranks. Where are the Vols at this point of the Summer? First with the returning players it has been reported that a huge percentage of the players stayed for the Summer and gained classes and significant team work experience. The past two years under Butch the players have stepped up and improved over the Summer. It appears that they have taken their off season work to another level this year. Given two things, the new rules about working with coaches and their personal experience from the past two Summers, the players seem to have been much better organized and driven this year. The returning players have been working not only on personal performance improvement but also assisting the newcomers get their feet on the ground. They are working with the new guys not only in conditioning but even more important educating them on systems and position responsibilities. Give all of them credit also for setting a great example for the new players in their conditioning, their study, and their personal conduct.
In the “Good Old Days”, the Freshmen would roll into town in August for Fall Camp expecting to become an instant starter and star. Two week later 99% of them would be both physical wrecks and mentally whipped. “You ain’t in High School anymore!!” was ringing in their ears. Some kids went home before classes started. This year’s class from signing day and before knew the expectations that they would be facing as Vols and started their season preparations before they set foot on campus. Butch, his coaches, and the current players need to be given credit for this point being made clear to the new kids.
All of this is good news and when we look at the individual pieces there is great cause for optimism for the coming year and I am optimistic about the coming season. My largest source for optimism is attitude of the returning players about “Being Better”. Right behind that is my belief that this is the first year since Phil Fulmer was the head coach that the Vols have a returning Roster 2 Deep with experience with no incoming Freshmen projected as starters or on the current 2 Deep chart. The third piece in my “Optimistic Pie” is the players in the incoming class. This class is small but it really fits the needs of the Volunteer Team well. It is a combination of players to meet future needs and present areas of potential need in the coming season. All of the incoming players are on campus for the Summer Terms.
First, I want to address injuries since there were a number of players out for the Spring Practice. As of today all injured players are expected to play this Fall. Shy Tuttle may not be at 100% but he will be able to practice and play. This will be the best and most complete team going into August’s practices that Butch has had to start the season.
I have read most of the preseason College Football magazines. One thing I like to compare in those publications are their ratings of the best units in the nation and the SEC. As a team the Vols are consistently rated at or near at the top of the SEC Units in every area but three. Those areas are the Vol’s Receivers, DL, and Secondary. I think that Butch has addressed the needs of the Volunteers in these areas both with the incoming class and with the returning players.
At WR, the Vols returning players are all healthy with Josh Smith and Preston Williams at 100 % and JUCO Jeff George completing Spring Practice they look good. There are two real plus factors for the receivers. First the three incoming Freshmen all have exceptional speed and size. They really appear to be ahead of the curve to be ready to play this Fall. Latrell Williams, Tyler Byrd, and Marquez Callaway have turned heads this Summer with their speed. The second factor is the return of the best TE’s, with new talent added to that mix, and their new position coach, Larry Scott, who is a “Keeper”. This is in my opinion and may prove to be the most talented receiving group of TE’s in my memory at UT.
At DL, the returning players are solid to “Star” quality. There are three things to look for in their play. First players recovering from injuries and progressing physically to the next level for SEC play. I expect both Kyle Phillips and Andrew Butcher to play at another level this Fall. Secondly, red shirt and sophomore players stepping up with their new roles on the field of play. Quay Picou and Darrell Taylor are in that mix. The third factor and potentially the biggest impact is the addition of Jonathan Kongbo to the DL. At this point he appears to be the real deal as a player and a game difference maker. Pairing him with Derek Barnett could be a pair of ALL SEC DE’s. They have to be effective against the run and be much better at putting pressure on the QB’s in passing situations, especially on 3rdDown. This area is the #1 in my book for improvements in the team won/loss column this year.
In the Secondary, the Vols have a unit that has suffered great misfortune the past few years. Lack of speed, lack of depth, lack of size, and injuries all have made this unit suffer in games. Lack of a 3rd & Long pass rush has not helped them. Cam Sutton is a star. There is returning depth with some suspect talent due to speed and length. There are several reasons to expect a major improvement in this unit. I believe that the DB’s will challenge the WR’s to be the most improved unit on the Vols Team this Fall. The first reason is the addition of Bob Shoop as the Def Coordinator. He is a Secondary Guru. I believe that the guys will play better both as a unit and as individuals. The improvement of the returning players is a major part in this unit’s play stepping up. My second reason is that the return of Rashaan Gaulden from injury will be a major plus by having a playmaker on the field. The third reason on my list is the addition of Nigel Warrior and Marquill Osborne to the mix. They are both play makers and will challenge for time on the field.
Next Vol Notes will be prior to Kickoff. Have a great Summer and let’s get ready for some “Football Time in Tennessee!!”