Spring injuries turn into fall depth

Injuries decimated Tennessee in the offseason, limiting the things the team can do during spring practice. But those injuries could provide a positive benefit as the Vols build depth across the board.

At one point during non-contact drills at Tennessee’s practice Thursday, there were more starting defenders wearing shorts and t-shirts than pads. With defensive coordinator John Jancek patiently instructing his players as they completed a quick walk through, the scene looked more like a serious flag football game with helmets than a practice in pads.

For Jancek, it was just another day in the life of a coach who’s had to work around injuries with as much creativity as he does opposing offenses.

Six of the Vols’ nine players ruled out for spring practice play defense, including 2014 starters Curt Maggitt, Derek Barnett and Danny O’Brien. Others, like defensive back Emmanuel Moseley, were slated to be full participants but have missed time due to injury.

The lack of depth has hindered everything from practice reps to the spring game — which Butch Jones has said will be more of a spring “event” due to the lack of numbers — but there is a silver lining.

The mental repetitions the injured guys are able to garner over the spring have helped bolster their football education. Without having to attach mechanics to their reads from the sidelines, players like Maggit and O’Brien have been able to do something they couldn’t do much of last year: simply watch.

“We’re trying to get them some work to keep them engaged, keep them stimulated and go over the things that are going to be problematic to us and what offenses do. We’re just trying to get those guys ready for the fall as best we can,” Jancek said.

“Obviously they’re limited with the surgeries and the injuries that they have, but certainly from a mental standpoint we can stimulate them and get them coached up.”

The cerebral aspect of the game is obviously something Jones has keyed in on this spring. It’s nearly impossible to walk by a practice on Haslam Field without hearing the third-year head coach bark “mental reps” into the microphone he carries with him.

The limited numbers have also allowed players like defensive lineman Shy Tuttle and linebacker Chris Weatherd to get extra playing time they otherwise wouldn’t have received. In fact, the Vols have gone all out when it comes to building depth. Jancek has purposefully limited the reps of starting safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil to further improve a unit that is one of the strongest on the team.

“To be honest with you, in today’s game, you need to play a lot of players on defense,” Jancek said. “I remember there was times last year we had some of our linebackers playing 85-90 snaps a game, our (defensive backs) playing 85-90 snaps a game. Over time, that just takes its toll. To have some depth is really important.”

With expected contributors missing like Darrin Kirland, who is injured, and Scout No. 1 ranked prospect Kahlil McKenzie, who is not even on campus yet, things will continue to get better for Tennessee defensively as the calendar steadily flips toward September.

The unequal blend of youth and veteran talent might make for tough sledding now, but it might only be a matter of time before people start talking about the spring injuries plaguing the team as a blessing in disguise.

“I still feel that we’re going to be young again this year with the number of players and true freshmen that we’re going to have to keep an eye on. It’s a process,” Jancek said.

“I’m excited about it, because I think we have some talented players. It’s just going to be a matter of putting everything together, not making mistakes and beating ourselves. That will be the challenge for us this fall.”

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