Cainer’s Corner: Vols Early Camp Update

By: Eric Cain / @_Cainer 

It’s finally football time in Tennessee. Well, not quite, but the guys are back on the practice field taking part in fall camp. The Vols have completed three practices thus far with the shoulder pads coming on for the first time Sunday afternoon.

It’s early. There’s a lot of time left before kickoff versus Georgia State, but here are a few early observations I’ve noticed over the weekend.

Disclaimer: Media can view only a few practices a week for around 10-20 minutes. Simply put: we don’t see a lot, but at least we can see something.

Vols QB Jarrett Guarantano & RB Tim Jordan / Credit: Sam Forman (WNML)

Size Matters

All jokes aside, size on the football field isn’t everything. But you can’t ignore it and it doesn’t hurt. You can go up-and-down the roster and see the weights have picked up on both the offensive and defensive lines. That will be critical. Why, well that’s self-explanatory. Tennessee has really struggled in the trenches that past two seasons.

All four contributors on the DL graduated from the 2018 team. Really, only Emmit Gooden of the returners saw significant time and that still wasn’t a whole lot. Jeremy Pruitt and Tracy Rocker are trying to build depth at the position for first-year defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley.

Of the eight scholarship defensive lineman in camp, all are over 6-foot-2 and five are listed above 300 pounds. Junior College transfer Darel Middleton highlights the bunch at 6-foot-7, 311 pounds.

Can he play? We’ll see when they put the pads on. But there’s no doubt about it. Tennessee’s offensive and defensive line (outlined above) are bigger. Credit goes to strength coach Craig Fitzgerald and staff for the offseason work.

Other notables that look bigger: Marcus Tatum (OL), Jamir Johnson (OL), Jarrett Guarantano (QB), Jeremy Banks (RB).

Newcomers who already have size that will need to work on their bodies over the next year: Wanya Morris (OL), Darnell Wright (OL), Elijah Simmons (DL).

Came to camp looking SEC ready (by size, not necessarily play): Quavaris Crouch (LB), Roman Harrison (LB), Henry To’o To’o (LB), Jerrod Means (CB), Jaylen McCollough (S)

 

CBs lacking in numbers – not in talent

Bryce Thompson and Alontae Taylor burst onto the season as freshmen last season for the Volunteers, primarily, because the team had no one else. Give credit where credit is due. Both players are extremely talented and big gets for Pruitt’s first recruiting class. The former was a Freshman All-American while the latter played in every game with nine starts.

Still, freshmen make mistakes. That’s part of it. Both are back and ready to roll for what hopes to be exciting sophomore campaigns.

Looking past the dynamic duo, you won’t see much. Pruitt said in the fall camp opening press conference that veteran Baylen Buchanan will be ‘held out the first few weeks.’ That will be a huge loss for the Vols if he’s not ready to go week 1. You have Warren Burrell, who was a part of the class of 2019, stepping up as the main backup as of now. He’s performed well so far in camp, including locking down Jauan Jennings in some 1-on-1 drills Sunday during practice.

That’s a good sign, too, because who else is there? I’ll wait…

Pruitt moved freshman receiver Jerrod Means (6-foot-2, 214) to cornerback. The second-year head coach is hoping that’s a quicker path to the field as there are a plenty of receivers ahead of Means on the current standing depth chart. Means is just getting to know the position now, but again, looks the part.

Progression QBs

We’ve seen all three scholarship quarterbacks throw against air during the first three practices of fall camp. You can still take a lot away from it – until we see some competition from DBs or LBs. The QBs have been working on foot work, both three and five-step drop backs while throwing various routes including digs, comebacks, ins, outs, posts and flags.

For the first time in his career, Guarantano comes into camp as a clear-cut starter. He’s looked it too in being more poised and throwing better balls. Both sophomore J.T. Shrout and freshman Brian Maurer are competing for the backup spot over the next few weeks.

Early on, I’d give the edge to Shrout. He’s thrown a more consistent ball. Maurer has thrown many balls high and behind intended receivers. Still a lot of time left. Could just be shaking off the rust.

Guarantano is pleased with the progression of the offense thus far that boasts a veteran receiving corps. The quarterback expects many running backs to play a role in the offense but understands the versatility and play-making ability of junior Ty Chandler.

Tennessee’s leader is also happy to be playing for first-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney – who earlier in the week said the quarterback would have ‘as much as he can handle’ in terms of control at the line of scrimmage. Guarantano will continue to built a rapport with Chaney in terms of changing the play, protections, etc. at the line of scrimmage as the redshirt-junior admitted there is a lot of ‘trial and error’ going on early in camp.

And what about the offensive line?

Like most positions, the O-Line has been doing nothing but drill work (combo, fold, etc.) while the media has been made available to practice. Often, the guards are off working with the centers while the tackles are working with the tight ends or some other combination of the group. Very rarely have we seen a complete line drill at once, and even so, you can’t buy into who is out there first. Simply, we are three practices in and I’m certain things will change before Georgia State.

From what I can gather by observing drills, the ‘first group’ looks as so: Wanya Morris (LT), Trey Smith (LG), Brandon Kennedy (C), K’Rojhn Calbert (RG) and Marcus Tatum (RT). Take this with a grain of salt – I’m confident this won’t be the line rolled out game 1.

Remember, Smith is still sidelined from full-contact drills (blood clots). Morris is a true freshman and not many true freshmen start on the offensive line in the Southeastern Conference – much less at left tackle. Tatum, who has played a lot of football for UT over the years, was regulated to a backup role before coming on in relief of Smith following the Auburn victory.

Tatum is bigger (up to 316 pounds) and experienced, but Tennessee fans want to see 5-star tackle Darnell Wright. Wright, who has been repping at right tackle also, will need to work his way into the lineup as he was not on campus for spring practice.

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Could Wright and Morris start at the bookend tackle positions game 1? Absolutely they could, but I see it highly unlikely. However, I do believe at some point this season that’s how it will be. Probably sooner rather than later.

Veteran Ryan Johnson has been getting reps at center (he can also play guard), Jamir Johnson has been getting reps on the left side, Riley Locklear has been seen at left guard and Jerome Carvin has been seen at guard.

Time will tell how it all plays out up front – a unit that has been horrendous the past two seasons. Tennessee boasts a lot of names who have played, but it still seeks the production on the field. I’ll keep my eye out on players and where they are practicing this week. Maybe we will see more concrete evidence on who is out in front.

Pruitt is confident in the bunch, however.

 

Other news and notes

  • Jeremy Pruitt said WR Jauan Jennings will be on a ‘pitch count’ early on in camp as he continues to recover from minor offseason knee surgery. The head coach said he’s ‘ready to go’, so I view this as just caution.
  • Pruitt also said veteran DB Baylen Buchanan will be held out ‘the first few weeks’ of camp.
  • Freshman linebacker Henry To’o To’o has been practicing on the inside along with second-year LB J.J. Peterson. Freshmen Quavaris Crouch and Roman Harrison have been practicing on the outside.
  • No surprise: sophomore Jeremy Banks began camp at running back. He’s really the only ‘big’ back on the roster.
  • Tennessee has an OFF day Monday and will hit the practice field again Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. Jeremy Pruitt is scheduled to meet with the media Wednesday following a 3:30 p.m. practice time.

I’m the station’s beat reporter this season – meaning, I’ll be at every available practice and media session throughout the entire year. I’ll have segment hits on the morning show (7:45 am) and Sports Talk (6:15 pm) every day called the ‘Tennessee Football Practice Reports.’ They will also be on our website and available through apple podcasts, google play and on our WNML app.

If you don’t already, be sure to follow me on twitter (@_Cainer ) for daily updates throughout camp and the season on the Tennessee football team. You’ll find live tweeting, analysis, photos and videos daily.

Appreciate it!

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