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VOL. 40 | NO. 35 | Friday, August 26, 2016

Players to watch as Vols make run at SEC title

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Much is resting on the talented arm and legs of senior quarterback Josh Dobbs. Sophomore Quinten Dormady played in six games last season, but only in late relief.

-- Donald Page /Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Less than a week from opening kickoff, and all is well with the UT’s football team.

Or is it?

There has been good and bad and in-between during the Vols’ fall camp, as is the case every year with every team.

Tennessee, ranked No. 9 in the APssociated Press preseason poll, is a 21-point favorite heading into the Sept. 1 opener against Appalachian State at Neyland Stadium. It’s the first of three should-be tune-ups for the SEC opener against Florida on Sept. 24 at Neyland Stadium.

Here is a glance at who seems ready, who might not be, and some new Vols to look for in the season opener. Next week: my predictions for the 2016 season.

Ready to go

Joshua Dobbs: As Dobbs goes, so goes Tennessee’s offense.

No doubt much is riding on the shoulders of the senior quarterback, and Dobbs (6-3, 210) embraces the role wholeheartedly.

UT offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said last Friday that Dobbs has been more consistent with his passing during this fall camp than in 2015, and the Vols’ passing game is on schedule.

The questions about Dobbs’ consistency and inability to throw the deep ball are well documented, but receivers often must share the blame for such issues.

Regardless, Dobbs gives the Vols a perfect quarterback for this offense with the threat he poses as a runner, and he was a big reason Tennessee went 9-4 and won its second consecutive bowl game last season.

If Dobbs goes out, it’s trouble. Quinten Dormady, the only other QB on the roster with experience, threw 22 passes last year as a freshman.

Jalen Hurd: Size, speed, and strength.

Hurd (6-4, 240) has it all, and combined with junior Alvin Kamara (5-10, 215) gives the Vols one of the SEC’s premier running back duos.

With 2,187 yards in his first two seasons, Hurd needs 892 yards to surpass Travis Henry (1997-2000) as Tennessee’s career rushing leader.

That’s not his main goal, though. Hurd said during camp he wants to deliver a national championship to the Vols this season, which could well be his last at UT. The former star from Hendersonville Beech High looks destined for the NFL.

Josh Malone: Let’s see if Malone (6-3, 200) can take another step forward this year. All indications are he’s ready.

The junior from Station Camp High in Gallatin was rated the No. 1 prospect in Tennessee by ESPN and a five-star by Rivals in 2014, and he’s gotten better in each of his first two seasons with the Vols.

Last year, Malone was third on the team in catches (31) and had the team-high 405 receiving yards.

DeBord says Malone has unlimited potential. This would be a good time to show it with the Vols’ receiving corps needing an uptick this year.

Dylan Wiesman: UT coach Butch Jones says Wiesman (6-4, 3-10) has embraced a leadership role within the offense during fall camp after starting all 13 games last year.

Wiesman, who moved into a starter’s role in 2015 preseason when Marcus Jackson was injured, is noted for his toughness and grittiness, which opponents might call nastiness.

Just the type of guy you need to make a run at the SEC championship. He’s on the Outland Trophy Watch List.

Derek Barnett: Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop calls Barnett (6-3, 265), ‘an enforcer’ in terms of keeping teammates in a positive mindset – or telling them to get with the program.

Not that the junior end from Brentwood Academy doesn’t show his stuff on the field. He has 20 career sacks – 10 in each of his first two seasons – and needs 13 more to surpass Reggie White (1980-83) as Tennessee’s career sacks leader.

He’s on the Bednarik Award Preseason Watch List and the Bronko Nagurski Preseason Watch List.

Cam Sutton: Sutton (5-11, 186) bypassed the 2016 NFL Draft to play his senior year with the Vols, and he returns with a mission of winning an SEC title.

He’s started all 38 games at cornerback in his three seasons at UT and was voted team captain for 2016 by his teammates along with senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.

Last season, Sutton led the nation in punt return average (18.7 yards). His 467 punt return yards broke the school single-season record of 457 held by Bobby Majors in 1969.

If Barnett is the enforcer, Sutton is the secondary’s quarterback.

Are they ready?

Shy Tuttle: Tuttle, a sophomore defensive tackle, has gone through drills during fall camp after spending spring practice and part of the summer on crutches and in a cast from a broken leg sustained in UT’s win over Georgia last Oct. 10.

Tuttle (6-2, 311), a four- and five-star prospect from North Davidson High in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a great fall camp in 2015 and was the second UT freshman to have his black stripe removed, a sign the newcomer appears ready for action.

UT’s coaches were cautious with Tuttle this fall camp. His playing time could be limited leading up to the Florida game. That’s when he will really be needed.

Chance Hall: Hall (6-4, 284), projected as a potential starter at right offensive tackle, had surgery on his knee for a non-ACL injury last Wednesday and is out for 4-6 weeks.

Hall, who missed spring with a shoulder injury, was thrust into a starting job last year as the O-line unit battled injuries. He started seven games and played in 10, and split time with sophomore Jack Jones (6-4, 307) of Murfreesboro Oakland High in the Vols’ comeback victory over Georgia.

Even before the injury, fourth-year junior Brett Kendrick (6-6, 318) of Christian Academy of Knoxville appeared to be ahead of Hall in the race for the right tackle job. Now, Kendrick is No. 1. He started the first five games at right tackle last year, but missed the next six with elbow and knee injuries.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin: Maybe this is an unwarranted concern, but Reeves-Maybin (6-0, 230) was in a no-contact green jersey for the first three weeks, probably due to a shoulder injury that caused him to miss most of spring practices.

The senior from Clarksville Northeast High was UT’s leading tackler last year and is on multiple preseason lists for top linebacker in the nation. There’s been no indication Reeves-Maybin won’t be ready for the opener, but you’ve got to worry about another shoulder issue popping up once he starts taking lots of hits.

UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop says Reeves-Maybin and sophomore Darrin Kirkland Jr. set the pace for his linebacker corps early in camp. While there is competition for their backup spots, it looks like a drop-off if one of them goes out.

Alexis Johnson: Don’t look for UT’s defensive line to get help too soon from Johnson, the junior college transfer who was suspended from team activities until last Thursday due to his arrest in February over an incident with his ex-girlfriend.

In April, Johnson (6-4, 295) had the felony assault charge reduced to a misdemeanor that will be dropped assuming he completes a sixth-month probationary time with no further incident. In August, the charges against Johnson were deemed unfounded by a UT student judicial panel.

Johnson was on the field for the first time late last week for conditioning work, but Coach Jones said that wasn’t an indication he was fully back in the program. He’s remained enrolled at UT throughout the process and until last week wasn’t allowed to participate in team-related activities.

Defensive lineman Johnathan Kongbo, shown here making a play on running back Jeremy Lewis during practice, was the No. 1-rated junior college prospect in the nation last year.

-- Donald Page /Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Even if Johnson is cleared to play, chances are he’s not ready for the jump from Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College to the SEC.

Aaron Medley: The junior kicker made 19 of 20 field goals inside 40 yards last year, but was 1 for 6 from outside of 40 yards.

Medley missed a 55-yarder in the 28-27 loss to Florida on Sept. 26 and went 0 for 3 in a 19-4 loss to Alabama on Oct. 24 with misses from 43, 51 and 51 yards.

Has Medley gotten better from beyond 40 yards? There could be a game or two – and possibly an SEC East title – riding on that question.

Watch these newcomers

Baylen Buchanan: It’s an annual preseason honor to be the first UT freshman to have his black helmet stripe removed, and this camp it was awarded Aug. 10 to Buchanan (5-11, 190), a defensive back from Peachtree Ridge High in Suwanee, Georgia., near Atlanta.

Buchanan, a consensus three-star recruit, is the son of former NFL All-Pro free safety Ray Buchanan.

Shoop says Baylen Buchanan is ready to contribute immediately and compares him to Sutton when Sutton was a freshman at Tennessee. (Shoop was defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt at the time, 2013).

Nigel Warrior: Warrior (6-0, 186), a safety who played with Buchanan at Peachtree Ridge High, was the second freshman to his stripe removed – a day after Buchanan. That comes as no surprise.

Jones, Shoop, and UT’s veteran players have raved about Warrior since early in camp.

He’s a legacy Vol, the son of former UT All-American defensive back Dale Carter (1990-91).

Scout.com rated Warrior a five-star recruit and the No. 1 safety out of Georgia.

Jeff George: UT’s wide receiver corps should get a boost from George (6-6, 195), a junior transfer from Dodge City (Kansas) Community College.

George, who had his black stripe removed last Wednesday, enrolled in January and went through spring practices, so he’s ahead of the other newcomers at wide receiver.

Plus, he’s got the size to cause matchup problems on end zone fade routes.

Tyler Byrd: A consensus four-star recruit, Byrd hardly missed a beat during fall camp and drew lots of praise from DeBord.

Byrd had his black stripe removed the same day as George, and with the way the Vols like to rotate receivers, they could both be in the mix.

No surprise here. Byrd, who flipped his commitment late from Miami and signed with Tennessee, was rated the No. 1 athlete and No. 1 prospect out of Florida last year by ESPN.

Marquez Calloway: Yes, another newcomer could break into the wide receiver rotation. Calloway (6-2, 190), a consensus four-star prospect from Warner Robins (Georgia) High School, could be a factor.

DeBord says Calloway has superb pass-catching skills, and word from camp is he hardly ever misses a catchable pass.

Marcus Tatum: UT’s coaches certainly don’t want to throw a true freshman into the offensive tackle rotation if they don’t have to, but Tatum has done enough in fall camp to show he’s ready, if needed.

Tatum (6-6, 265) is way light for an SEC tackle, although he’s actually about 280 pounds instead of his listed weight. DeBord liked Tatum’s athleticism and effort during fall camp.

Scout.com rated Tatum the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in Florida after his senior year at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach.

Quart’e Sapp: With Reeves-Maybin and sophomore Darrin Kirkland Jr. holding down the two linebacker spots in the 4-2-5 defense, the Vols are looking for their backups.

Sapp (6-2, 220) got in the running for the backup to Reeves-Maybin at middle linebacker with his play fall camp. The redshirt freshman from Milton High in Alpharetta (Georgia) was a big signee to the 2015 class.

He was a consensus four-star recruit after helping Milton reach the Class 6A state semifinals in 2014.

Jonathan Kongbo: It’s time to let actions do the talking for Kongbo (6-6, 270), rated the nation’s No. 1 junior-college prospect out of Arizona Western College.

Kongbo caused a stir with his social media posts in the offseason. In March he posted a video of him working out in front a dry erase board with “BAMA WE COMING!” written on it.

Later, in an interview with Rocky Top Insider, Kongbo said the Vols were going to beat Alabama and Florida and also said, “I’ll say right now, we’re going to beat every team we play next year.”

Hmm. We’ll see.

You don’t sign a player like Kongbo and sit him. He’s got the size and athleticism to play on the interior of the D-line or at end.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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