Editor’s note: In advance of Tennessee’s Orange and White spring scrimmage, SEC Country is highlighting one storyline of note each day to help prepare fans for the culmination of spring practice. Wednesday’s entry focuses on Tennessee’s speedsters on the outside, that are inexperienced and/or banged up.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Everyone wants to see big plays in a spring game, and there are few plays more exciting than a deep pass or an interception for a touchdown. Tennessee fans may be disappointed this year, however, as injuries and inexperience could limit such moments.
The Vols wrap up spring practice with the Orange and White Game on Saturday and have plenty of question marks on the perimeter on both sides of the ball. The secondary has been rebuilt. The receivers have been beaten up.
Tuesday’s practice provided a good example of the team’s perimeter woes. The Vols had three scholarship receivers on the field: rising senior Cody Blanc, rising junior Jeff George and rising sophomore Preston Williams. Blanc has just one reception in his career. George is a junior college transfer. Williams had an up-and-down season in 2015, with a preseason eligibility issue and a hamstring injury, but still managed seven receptions for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Rising junior Josh Smith was held out of practice on Tuesday but is expected to return by Saturday.
Injuries will keep rising sophomores Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings off the field on Saturday, as well as Vincent Perry, who will be a redshirt freshman this season. The receiver lineup that takes the field on Saturday won’t be the group that opens the 2016 season.
Tennessee’s defensive backs are also in flux, although not nearly as much as their offensive counterparts. Of course, rising senior Cameron Sutton will lock down one cornerback position after turning down the NFL and returning to finish his eligibility. The other cornerback position, however, is very much in question, especially after rising junior Justin Martin has been sidelined for nearly two weeks of spring practice with an undisclosed illness.
Martin’s absence has opened the door for rising juniors Emmanuel Moseley and D.J. Henderson. Moseley battled Martin for playing time at cornerback throughout last season, and Henderson is a junior college transfer. Rising senior Malik Foreman and mid-term enrollee Marquill Osborne are competing at the nickelback position, which Tennessee uses extensively.
There is more competition at safety as the Vols are forced to replace three departing seniors. Rising sophomores Micah Abernathy and Rashaan Gaulden received early praise in spring practice, but rising junior Todd Kelly Jr., has made a late push. Two of the three are expected to lock down the vacated safety positions. Rising junior Evan Berry is also expected to be a factor this fall, but he was held out of spring practice.
The competition across the board has made for an interesting spring. The inexperience on offense could lead to a tough day on Saturday for Tennessee’s passing game. However, take note, with incoming freshman and a healthy overall group of wideouts, the Vols will look much different at receiver this fall.
Scouting Tennessee’s Orange and White Game
Names to know: On defense, Abernathy, Gaulden and Kelly Jr. will be the players to watch. On offense, George and Williams are potential playmakers downfield.
What to expect: Expect the Vols to try to take some shots downfield to excite the fans in attendance. However, it will be tough for the Vols’ thin receiver corps to make too many big plays. Even without Martin, the Vols have much more experience in the secondary than they do at receiver, despite the rebuild. Moreover, this year’s group of safeties figure to be more athletic than any the Vols have had recently.
Final verdict: The secondary figures to make some big plays on Saturday. However, fans shouldn’t be too dismayed if the Vols struggle in the passing game. There are still over four months until the season begins, more than enough time for the receiving corps to get healthy.