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VOL. 39 | NO. 31 | Friday, July 31, 2015

Vols open fall camp with great expectations

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Quarterback Josh Dobbs, here accepting his TaxSlayer Bowl MVP trophy after the Vols’ win against Iowa, was 4-1 as a starter after earning the job in October. His late-season play is one reason Tennessee has been picked by some to win the SEC East.

-- Icon Sportswire Via Ap Images

It’s hard to miss the buzz of excitement as Tennessee’s football team starts preseason practices for the 2015 season in Butch Jones’ third year as head coach.

That’s what a winning record and a bowl victory does for a program and for fans starved for success.

UT went 7-6 last season – its first winning season since 2009 – and beat Iowa 45-28 in the TaxSlayer Bowl for its first bowl victory since 2007.

Expectations are soaring.

Tennessee was picked to finish second in the SEC East behind Georgia in a preseason media poll, and some consider the Vols the favorite to win the division. Georgia got 166 first-place votes to win the East, while UT got 36 first-place votes.

The Vols begin preseason practices Monday, Aug. 3.

“Obviously, the expectations have changed a little bit,” Jones said at SEC Media Days. “But as we’re all aware, when you’re at the University of Tennessee, you always have high expectations.

“But this year is different for each and every player on our football team. Really that’s what you want. You want the expectations to be exceptionally high. That’s why they chose to come to Tennessee, to play in a program that has high expectations.”

Jones and his staff spent the weekend prior to start of preseason workouts going over team policies with the players. Then the rigorous practices start in the August heat.

UT’s season opener is Sept. 5 against Bowling Green at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium with its home opener Sept. 12 against Big 12 power Oklahoma at Neyland Stadium.

How amped are Vol fans?

UT officials say the Oklahoma game is already sold out, and so is the Oct. 10 home game against Georgia – at a cost of $105 per ticket for the Sooners game and $90 for the Bulldogs, both historic high prices for Neyland Stadium.

Jones isn’t worried about Oklahoma or Georgia yet.

It’s the opener in Nashville that has the attention of UT’s coaches.

“We’re very, very excited to open up in Nashville at Nissan Stadium, and it’s going to be a thrill for all of our players from the Midstate area, from Middle Tennessee, and for the entire state of Tennessee to open up in Nashville,” Jones says.

“Nashville means so much to us, so to be able to open up there and have those players experience that (is special). We need to challenge Vol Nation, we’re going to sell the game out. We’re going to have a great home-field advantage because we need that versus a quality opponent like Bowling Green.”

With that in mind, here are seven storylines to watch as the Vols start preseason workouts.

1: Josh Dobbs’ progression as a premier QB

Some people forget Dobbs appeared headed for a redshirt season in 2014. That was until Game 8 against Alabama when Justin Worley was out with an injury and the Vols’ first two drives fizzled with Nathan Peterman at quarterback.

We all know the rest.

Dobbs rejuvenated the offense, made the offensive line look better, and led the Vols to a 4-1 record down the stretch (the loss was to East champion Missouri) with the bowl victory over Iowa.

In the spring, Dobbs worked with new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, who was hired by Jones when Mike Bajakian left to be the quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Dobbs has embraced DeBord as his new coordinator and enters this season with hype as a rising star among SEC quarterbacks. He had a busy summer, first serving an internship with aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney and attending the Elite 11 Camp in Beaverton, Ore., and the Manning Passing Academy as a counselor.

Jones and the Vols are relying big-time on Dobbs.

“It makes it easier because he’s proven himself,” Jones says. “We understand what we’re getting with Josh, and we always talk about consistency and performance, and we know what we’re getting with Josh day in and day out, week in and week out. He’s done a tremendous job.

“We challenged him this spring to be what we call a CEO quarterback, an individual who owns the team, who owns the offense, that can solve problems on his own, that can provide leadership and stability that you expect from that position, so we’re excited about him.”

Dobbs enters the preseason on several “watch lists.” They include The Manning Award, the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award, the Weurffel Trophy, the Maxwell Award, and he is nominated for the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.

2: What about Dobbs’ backup?

UT coaches better hope Dobbs has learned to slide, dodge direct hits, and protect himself better than he showed at times last year, or they might be faced with putting a true freshman on the field in his place.

Worley graduated from UT, and Nathan Peterman transferred to Pittsburgh for a new start.

That leaves true freshmen Quinten Dormady, Sheriron Jones, and Jauan Jennings competing for the backup job.

Dormady, a four-star pro-style quarterback out of Boerne (Texas) High, enters fall camp as the No. 2 QB after enrolling with the Vols in January and taking part in spring workouts with Dobbs and DeBord as mentors. He’s got a high football IQ as the son of Boerne head coach Mike Dormady.

Jennings, of Murfreesboro Blackman High, was also a mid-year enrollee and took part in spring practices – he ran for a touchdown in the Orange & White game – and will join Jones in their chase for the backup job.

Jones is a four-star dual-threat quarterback from Rancho Verde High in Perris, Calif., and joined the Vols this summer.

Pinpointing a backup quarterback will be a priority for Jones and DeBord.

“One of the unproven areas of our football team is who our No. 2 quarterback is going to be, and we know it’s going to be a freshman,” Jones points out.

“Josh (Dobbs) has done a great job of mentoring our freshmen. Obviously, having Quinten Dormady enroll early really, really helped him move forward as well and get to the comfort level with his teammates and our offense as well.”

3: Vols’ one-two punch at running back

Jalen Hurd was a five-star recruit at running back out of Hendersonville’s Beech High School, and he certainly lived up to the billing as a freshman last year for the Vols.

His 899 rushing yards was the third-most for a true freshman in Tennessee history behind James Stewart (908 yards in 1991) and Jamal Lewis (1,364 in 1997).

With Hurd limited to non-contact in the spring after having shoulder surgery, highly touted transfer Alvin Kamara was able to show his stuff, and UT’s coaches were impressed. So was Hurd.

Kamara, of Norcross, Ga., took a redshirt season at Alabama in 2013 and transferred to Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, where he rushed for 1,211 yards and 18 touchdowns in nine games in 2014 before enrolling at UT.

Jones reports the two backs complement each other – Hurd as a bruiser, Kamara a speedster.

“They’ve embraced each other,” Jones adds. “In this conference, you can never have enough running backs, and it’s all about durability. That’s one thing we’ve really challenged Jalen in is his durability. Being 6-3, obviously he runs with a physical presence, but it’s lowering the pad level. He’s added the size and the weight he needs to have and is about 242 pounds (from 227 listed before spring).

“Now you couple that with Alvin Kamara, and we’re really, really excited. Alvin stepped into our program from Day One and didn’t say a word and just kept working and working and working, and he has earned the respect of his teammates. We look forward to those two playing together.”

4: Who’s leading the defense?

There was a big void left when senior linebacker A.J. Johnson was booted off the team after being charged with rape during a party after the Nov. 15 game against Kentucky.

Johnson, who has pleaded not guilty, was not only Vols’ top defensive player – and an NFL prospect at the time – but also a vocal team leader.

Who steps in his place?

There are plenty of candidates.

Fifth-year senior Curt Maggitt was a second-team All-SEC player in 2014 and gives the Vols versatility as a defensive end/outside linebacker. He was on the All-SEC first team in the preseason, chosen by media.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a junior from Clarksville Northeast High, started all 13 games at weak-side linebacker in 2014 and had a good spring and an even better summer.

Other defensive leaders are former Brentwood Academy standout Derek Barnett, who earned freshman All-American honors in 2014, and junior cornerback Cam Sutton, chosen to several All-SEC teams and considered one of the SEC’s top corners.

“First of all, Curt Maggitt is one of the leaders of our football team, and he has the respect, and the definition of leadership is influence,” explains Jones. “The other individual who’s really stepped up and provided stability at the linebacker position is Jalen Reeves-Maybin. He’s done a great job, and then you obviously have the freshman last year in Derek Barnett and a lot of other individuals. …

“Cam Sutton is also one of our leaders in our back end (secondary), so we’re continuing to get more leadership, and we spent a lot of time within our football family on leadership development, and I think you’re starting to see that pay its dividends.”

5: Newcomers on the D-Line

With defensive tackle Jordan Williams having used up his eligibility in 2014, the Vols have a big opening in the middle.

Junior Danny O’Brien started all but one game last year at nose guard and enters camp as the projected starter there, despite sitting out the spring with an injury.

Mid-year enrollee Shy Tuttle, a four- and five-star defensive lineman from Midway, N.C.’s North Davidson High, draws praise from Jones and the staff in the spring, and five-star recruit Kahlil McKenzie of Clayton Valley Charter School/Walnut Creek, California, arrived in the summer with high accolades.

“Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie are very, very talented players, but they’re unproven,” Jones says. “They’re going to be going up against juniors and seniors in this conference, but they’re very, very talented, and they’ve been mentored.”

Don’t be surprised if sophomore Kendal Vickers makes a push for more time on the D-line.

Vickers was a two- and three-star recruit as an outside linebacker/defensive end out of Havelock (N.C.) High and was redshirted in 2013. He’s added 50-plus pounds since his arrival at UT and has settled into a spot on the defensive interior.

“Kendal Vickers came in as a defensive end and weighed, I believe, 230 pounds,” Jones notes. “I saw him (July 13), and he’s 287 pounds. He’s really made a commitment to his body and to the weight room.”

6: O-Line is maturing

UT’s offensive line is much more settled this preseason than last with the departure of only one starter, tackle Jacob Gilliam, having used up his eligibility in 2014. Gilliam started one game at left tackle and six at right tackle after Coleman Thomas was injured.

Fifth-year senior Kyler Kerbyson, the former Knoxville Catholic standout, started all but three games last season at left tackle. Gilliam started the opener against Utah State, and Brett Kendrick started the second game against Arkansas State and the eighth game against Alabama.

Mack Crowder returns as the starting center, with Jashon Robertson at right guard and Marcus Jackson at left guard and Ethan Wolf at tight end.

Kendrick, a sophomore from Christian Academy of Knoxville, can play either tackle and is a candidate for Gilliam’s open job. Thomas also returns for his sophomore year.

While the O-line took a beating often last season – in particular before Dobbs took over at quarterback – the unit enters 2015 camp looking far better than a year ago.

Now, it’s up for Jones and offensive line coach Don Mahoney to settle on a reliable two-deep rotation.

“The great thing with this offensive line this (year) is it’s the first time since we’ve been at Tennessee where we had our first and second group comprised of scholarship players,” Jones explains. “So now we have competition, and as we all know, competition is extremely helpful.

“We’re going to have some competitive battles to find the best five to start the season, and that may not stay that way midyear through the season, maybe number six or number seven is playing, but we now have that competitive depth that we need. Now it’s just them gelling together as a unit.”

7: What’s their status?

Senior receiver Von Pearson remains suspended indefinitely after being named in a rape investigation in April, which caused him to miss the Orange & White game.

Pearson was second on the team in catches (38) and receiving yards (393) last season and led the Vols in touchdown catches with five. He was working with the first team of wide receivers in the spring before the incident and was expected to play a big role in the passing game this year.

Pearson is not enrolled in classes at UT, and has retained an attorney and not been charged. He is still listed on the Vols’ 2015 summer roster.

Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Charles Mosley also remains suspended after being charged with first-offense DUI and speeding July 23. Police found “marijuana residue” in the front passenger seat and back seat during a search of the car, according to a police report, and Mosley performed “poorly” on a series of six field sobriety tests.

It’s not the way Mosley planned his comeback after suffering a broken tibia in an automobile accident last July. Mosley, of Brighton, Tenn., missed the 2014 season after having surgery for his broken leg.

Quay Picou, a three-star defensive lineman in the 2015 class, was not in summer school at UT as he attempts to clear up grade issues from Buford (Ga.) High School.

Will any of them make it on the field in 2015? Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, there is no doubt about the status of 2015 signee Jocquez Bruce of Knoxville’s South-Doyle High and junior safety Devaun Swafford, former Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett standout.

Bruce was suspended from the Vols in mid-July and on July 24 announced he was leaving the UT program. Bruce, a three-star recruit as a cornerback, also played running back and receiver for South-Doyle. He agreed to take a “blue shirt” season and be placed on scholarship in the future at UT, but now plans to transfer and play elsewhere.

Swafford opted to forego his last two seasons at UT due to a neck/spinal injury sustained in the fourth quarter of Tennessee’s victory in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The injury could have required surgery, and Swafford’s continued playing would leave him in danger of paralysis if contact was severe enough.

Instead, Swafford will remain with the program on a medical scholarship and serve as a student-coach.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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