December step-up time for 5 Vols

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Not only is team building and a chance to add another victory key to Tennessee reaching the postseason, but it's also an opportunity for several players to step up for those graduated, injured or suspended to secure roles the following season.

InsideTennessee takes a look at five Volunteers with the option to take the reins at their specific position this December as the Big Orange prepare for TaxSlayer Bowl opponent Iowa.

Kenneth Bynum

Doesn't look like Knoxville's district attorney will make a move that could reinstate A.J. Johnson to the lineup in time for the TaxSlayer Bowl. Jakob Johnson needs to have a shoulder surgically repaired. As a redshirt sophomore in the second year of coordinator John Jancek's scheme, the Jacksonville, Florida, native has the practices and non-conference game to prove to coaches that his roster spot the next two seasons should stay secure. Even if Johnson were to return, he has but one game of eligibility remaining. This is Bynum's path the nudging ahead of other linebackers like Gavin Bryant and Jakob Johnson.

Alex Ellis

The former walk-on quarterback has finally gotten a chance to showcase what InsideTennessee reporters first saw two spring practices ago, which is a viable option at tight end for the Volunteers with a greater skill set than some older and more experienced. The position has been as banged up as any on the team but Ellis has proven to be a constant and scored a major touchdown against Missouri in a near upset of the eventual SEC East winners.

The 6-foot-4, 238-pounder has just six catches for 115 yards and that score versus Mizzou. If coaches can convince starting quarterback Joshua Dobbs to target the tight end for a chance, Ellis could help move the chains.

Jalen Hurd

Like Ellis it's not so much that he must work his way into a role as much taking advantage of a lack of depth around him. Marlin Lane should be able to spell Hurd, who missed almost the entire season finale versus Vanderbilt. Aside from those two, Tennessee doesn't have many options. Devrin Young may could help in instances versus a defense that relinquished 2,185 rushing yards gained.

Hurd has a chance to get 30-plus touches, put his talent on full display in a January bowl and start striking fear into the heart of 2015 opponents.

LaTroy Lewis

It's not so much that Lewis is guaranteed a starting spot as much as his getting increased individual attention from assistant coach Steve Stripling and more reps when the Vols practice.

Joseph Henderson didn't make the grade. Dewayne Hendrix is gone. Curt Maggitt will have more down time as he did throughout the spring and much of camp. Jaylen Miller needs surgery. Dimiarya Mixon and Kendal Vickers are now inside at tackle.

The Tennessee defensive front as a whole is in the midst of an enormous revitalization. The starting lineup has been productive at times but the depth-building must kick it into gear, including Lewis becoming a viable option to spell Maggitt, Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen.

Josh Malone

Former starters Marquez North and Josh Smith won't be back this season. Ryan Jenkins and Vic Wharton are unproven on the SEC level. The former Scout four-star Malone has 22 catches for 227 yards and a touchdown thus far in his young college career. Those numbers aren't quite what was expected from a player some screamed should have had five stars next to his name, however, they are solid, especially given his dealing with a groin strain for over a month.

Assuming Malone is close to or at 100-percent when the Hawkeyes line up against the Volunteers, the freshman should get plenty of targets and a chance to show his talent and worth versus a Desmond King or Greg Mabin. King was Scout's No. 60 cornerback in the 2013 class and Mabin was an unranked, two-star wide receiver in the 2012 class.

Check out more from the Vols and the head coach after Sunday's practice with the media below:

Malone handed opportunity

Butch speaks after Sunday's practice

Sutton on All-SEC snub, more


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