Tennessee opened spring practice Tuesday with a group that bears only a passing resemblance to the squad that will take the field this fall.
Injuries and transfers have left Tennessee thin at several positions, particularly running back and the defensive line. The list of nine players sitting out spring practice is headlined by defensive end Derek Barnett and defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt, who are recovering from shoulder injuries after combining for 21 sacks last season.
"We're going to be forced to be creative in the way we practice," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Other players sitting out spring practice include wide receiver Jason Croom, tight end Alex Ellis, offensive guard Marcus Jackson, linebackers Jakob Johnson and Darrin Kirkland, defensive tackle Danny O'Brien and defensive end Kyle Phillips. Running back Jalen Hurd won't have any contact work, and offensive lineman Chance Hall will have limited reps. Linebacker Dillon Bates and wide receiver Marquez North will be evaluated each day to see how much they can do as they come back from season-ending injuries.
Tennessee also had about a dozen players depart with eligibility remaining since the end of the 2014 regular season, with most transferring and one (defensive lineman Michael Sawyers) getting dismissed from the team. Although none were projected starters, their absences significantly hinder Tennessee's depth, at least until the injured players return and the majority of the Volunteers' heralded recruiting class arrives on campus.
Hurd's injury leaves junior-college transfer Alvin Kamara as Tennessee's only completely healthy scholarship running back. Tennessee also has only five healthy defensive linemen this spring.
"Not only does that hurt your development as a defense, but it really sets back your development as an offense in terms of our offensive line and being able to play football, play situational football and do the things that it takes to really develop an identity and develop a football team in the spring," Jones said.
Jones has altered his spring practice format to deal with his lack of players.
Tennessee has scheduled Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday as its practice days. On those days, the injured players will just have weight training. But on days when the rest of the team is watching film and lifting weights, Jones said the injured players will have walk-throughs and do "different things to try to simulate the mental repetitions, the mental effort, the mental intensity in the physical reps that they're allowed to do."
Even with the lack of healthy players, Tennessee still enters spring with plenty of optimism after ending a string of four straight losing seasons last year. The Vols finished 7-6 last year by winning four of their last five games, including a 45-28 TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa. The emergence of Joshua Dobbs means that Tennessee enters spring practice with a clear-cut starting quarterback for the first time in Jones' three-year tenure.
"The people inside the program know how far we've come," Jones said. "We've come night and day. It's not even a resemblance of the same football program when we walked in."
Butch Jones after Practice 1