The heck is the fuss about?
Tennessee went 40-47 in a seven-year stretch that was the worst in program history. Some suggest that the glory of Big Orange football has come and gone.
Sandwiched around that stretch of mediocrity is a total of 19 wins and two Outback Bowl appearances with the 2007 and 2015 seasons.
Was last year a fluke or a sign of things to come? Judging by the Amway Coaches Poll placing Tennessee at No. 10 nationally and the Southeastern Conference media pegging the Volunteers to take the Eastern Division.
Preseason hype from media types hails from two avenues of influence: 1. Performance in the bowl game and 2. Number of starters returning.
The Vols obliterated then-No. 13 Northwestern 45-6 in January.
The Vols return 17 starters from a nine-win football team.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, neither the rankings nor the previous season will have anything whatsoever to do with what lies ahead.
The experience of the starters coming back comes with a benefit. However, what coach Butch Jones and his staff must do is find names to pencil in for those that moved on, including some key roles:
Left tackle Kyler Kerbyson (13)
Wide receiver Von Pearson (8)
Defensive tackle Owen Williams (12)
Safety Brian Randolph (13)
Safety LaDarrell McNeil (10)
That’s 56 starts in 2015 between those five players. They leave a two-deep vacancy and gameday experience not easily replaced.
Jones speaks often about how football in the SEC is won in the trenches. Redshirt senior Danny O’Brien is the odd-on favorite to pick up Williams’ slack but sophomores Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle will be part of the D-tackle rotation.
“We have a lot of pressure up front,” senior cornerback Cameron Sutton said, “and we're building that depth. We've got a lot of guys who have a lot of experience, a lot of game-time experience and we've been through a lot of those situations before. We're able to rotate a lot of guys in and move guys around on our D-line and not have a drop off.”
The open safety spots mean green horns will be patrolling the last line of defense in a pivotal year. Some scouts suggest the raw playmaking ability could be better there in spite of the inexperience.
A pair of in-state products are the favorites to replace McNeil and Randolph. Franklin native RaShaan Gaulden has a skillset that’s impressed first-year Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop for years, dating back to when Shoop recruited Gaulden to Vanderbilt when Shoop led the stop unit for the Commodores. Knoxville son Todd Kelly Jr. has five starts under his belt to go with two-year numbers of 79 tackles and six interceptions.
Jones said the competition for both tackle jobs is “wide open.”
“We don’t have a left tackle nor a right tackle,” Jones said. “We’ll see where that goes.
“Not to say they’re not talented. They’re very, very talented but every time out here, it’s an opportunity to compete.”
Staying within the state borders, Christian Academy of Knoxville alum Brett Kendrick has the inside track on taking Kerbyson’s place on the left side with Memphis University School product Drew Richmond being Kendrick’s main competitor.
Pearson caught 76 passes for 802 yards with eight touchdowns in his two seasons on Rocky Top. That’s quite a bit of production that offensive coordinator Mike DeBord must gain from another source.
Kendrick's teammate at CAK, Josh Smith, figures to grab the reins with Pearson's spot and has 45 career catches for the Orange & White. If Tennessee operates at the tempo it desires, it will need way more than just three pass catchers. That means newcomers must step up, take full advantage of training camp and learn the playbook.
Jeff George arrived in January from the JUCO ranks and has a head start on the freshmen that joined Team 120 this summer. Which of the frosh can help immediately remains to be seen but Marquez Callaway is a talented player and the Vols had two of the most critical days of the preseason process between Saturday and Sunday.
“A lot of youngsters have to grow up in a hurry,” Jones said Saturday. “I think they are competing which we want to see.”
The head coach added that there were “too many balls on the ground” from receivers the first week of camp.
"It's youngsters and our older players have done a good job of mentoring the young players," Jones said. “That’s a group that…football is a developmental game. They’re going to continue to get better day-in and day-out.”
Here’s a look at one potential starting lineup Jones & Co. may go with for the season opener versus Appalachian State at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern (TV: SEC Network):
QB Joshua Dobbs (13)
RB Jalen Hurd (13)
TE Ethan Wolf (12)
WR Josh Malone (12)
WR xxxx xxxx
WR Jauan Jennings (6)
LT xxxx xxxx
LG Dylan Wiesman (13)
C Coleman Thomas (13)
RG Jashon Robertson (10)
RT Chance Hall (7)
DE Derek Barnett (13)
DT Kendal Vickers (13)
DT xxxx xxxx
DE Corey Vereen (7)
LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin (13)
LB Darrin Kirkland Jr. (10)
S xxxx xxxx
S xxxx xxxx
NB Malik Foreman (10)
CB Cameron Sutton (13)
CB Emmanuel Mosley (7)