With fall camp on the horizon, position battles across the board will begin to intensify as the Vols inch closer to the start of the regular season Sept. 5.
Mack Crowder and Coleman Thomas will compete for the starting center spot. Drew Richmond will certainly vie for playing time at tackle, and the all-important middle linebacker question mark will finally be answered.
Kenneth Bynum seems to be the leader at the MIKE spot heading into training camp, but he has by no means locked down the position and will be met with serious competition. Bynum, who played in seven games last year and notched his first start in Tennessee's 45-28 win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl, turned in a productive spring and hopes to clamp down the spot by the time August ends.
"The first thing is he knows what to do," defensive coordinator John Jancek said in April. "He knows how to set the front. He knows all the calls, gets guys lined up and that's huge. Kenny's done a really good job."
The 6-foot-1, 250-pound redshirt junior will have to fend off Dillon Bates, Darrin Kirkland and a host of other candidates waiting in the wings. Both players are coming off injuries but are expected to be healthy and ready to go when camp begins. Kirkland's knowledge of the game and athleticism will have him in contention. Bates has gained considerable weight in the offseason and is known to coaches as a cerebral workhorse.
“They’ll swim for a year, but the fact that they can talk to you and are willing to talk to you, call you on the phone and draw up plays, that tells you that the game is important to them,” linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said of the duo.
“When you see them working out and playing the game, 90 percent of it is just watching it on the board, drawing it up and then going out there and executing it.”
Linebacker isn't the only intriguing position to watch when practice starts. The defensive tackle unit is one that will rely on a heavy dose of youth when foot meets leather in September. Hyped freshmen Kahlil McKenzie, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2015 class, and early enrollee Shy Tuttle give Tennessee two extremely talented players who have yet to play a down of college football. Despite two All-SEC contenders coming off the edge in Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett, head coach Butch Jones hasn't held back when discussing the importance of his new freshmen tackles inside.
"It starts, first and foremost, with the defensive front. I don't think there's any secret that we're going to have to rely on some freshmen at the defensive tackle position," Jones said at SEC Media Days. "As you know, this is an unforgiving league. They're going to have to grow up in a hurry."
Fall camp should clear up some of the muddled position races, allow freshmen players to log valuable reps and give a first real look at a group still recovering from a rash of injuries in 2014.