Tennessee has plenty of competitive spots on its depth chart waiting to be sorted out this fall, and as any coach will tell you, competition breeds excellence when it comes to fighting for a starting spot. Position battles are good in that it shows the talent depth on the roster, but it’s no secret coaches want to know who their starters will be heading into the regular season sooner rather than later.
Butch Jones addressed those starter races Monday at his opening fall camp press conference and shed some light on who exactly will vie for the spots without secure starters in place.
Perhaps the most intriguing contest lies at the middle linebacker position, where All-SEC candidate Jalen Reeves-Maybin is still waiting to see who will emerge as his counterpart when the Vols take the field in a 4-2-5 formation.
Jones essentially listed off the entire linebacking unit when detailing who exactly will contend to stand next to Reeves-Maybin in the fall.
“That is a position that obviously is going to be extremely competitive,” Jones said. “You look at a number of individuals who are vying for that with Kenny Bynum, Colton Jumper, Darrin Kirkland, Gavin Bryant, Dillon Bates. Jakob Johnson we get back from injury who had some valuable repetitions there.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the tackle positions are far from locked down and Tennessee is hoping its growing depth will help foster a competitive battle at both right and left tackle.
“It’s going to be one of those positions that’s going to be highly competitive. I’d put it in the same regard as middle linebacker and No. 2 quarterback, so we’re going to move people around," Jones said. "Our job, when we have training camp, we have to find the best five that will play football for Tennessee. Not only the best five, but No. 6, No. 7, No. 8 and continue to develop at that next spot.”
Mack Crowder looks to fend off Coleman Thomas at the center position, but Thomas will also receive reps at tackle as Jones searches for his starters. The 6-foot-6, 308-pound sophomore started five games at right tackle last season and has become a versatile weapon for offensive line coach Don Mahoney in practice.
"He'll be one of those individuals that's going to be going through the evaluation of being in the top five, so Coleman will play center but he'll also get reps at tackle as well," Jones said. "And that is another individual who has benefited from the repetitions he gained last year and he has to become a wiser football player, which he has, but we'll move him around to find the best spot in which he can help this football team win."
Standing behind this developing offensive line will be Joshua Dobbs, who has firmly secured his starting spot as one of the most important players on the team. But Vol fans know all about the importance of a strong No. 2 quarterback, and that's an area that will shake itself out as well in the coming weeks.
"It's imperative, and as we found out, you can never have one quarterback or two quarterbacks. You have to have as many as possible to compete at this level, so again the repetitions will be at a premium," Jones said.
Quinten Dormady appeared to lock down the No. 2 quarterback job behind Dobbs in spring practice, but he'll be paced by the athletic freshman Sheriron Jones, whose talent level will force Dormady to improve every day to keep his position on the depth chart.
"I think Quinten Dormady has had a very productive summer," Jones said. "Obviously the reps that he gained in the spring were extremely invaluable, but we have to give them a number of opportunities to be able to provide confidence and see what they can do, but I'm excited about Quinten and I'm excited about Sheriron as well."
Last but certainly not least comes down to the competition between the big legs on the roster. The punting game is undeniably important in flipping field position and pinning teams deep in their own territory, and Tennessee is still in the process of figuring out who that will be when foot meets leather in September.
"We have to do a great job of putting our punters in competitive situations in a competitive environment each and every day. From Tommy Townsend to Trevor Daniel, across the board, we're going to be competing every day," Jones said.
"Everything will be charted, and that's why the importance of field position comes into play and being able to flip field position. Part of playing great defense is protecting your defense, and it starts with no three and outs on offense and it starts with playing a field position game. So, the punting situation is going to be absolutely critical."
The third-year head coach knows the outcome of these intense battles will be key in the development of his team, and he's looking for competition across the board — even from the positions that have been locked up — as he ratchets up the intensity and harps on giving maximum effort heading into training camp.
"The theme this year for our football program is `My All'. I think it is very fitting with the `I will give my all for Tennessee today' sign," Jones said. "There is a difference between what we call a concept and a belief. A concept is just a concept. You see it, but you don't believe in it. You don't touch that sign every time you run out onto the field of competition as a good luck charm. You touch that sign because you believe you are going to give your all for Tennessee."