KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee is having the best offseason of coach Butch Jones’ tenure heading into the team’s off week.
The Vols have completed four of the seven supervised weeks of offseason training, and all systems are go.
But, go to where? To the SEC Championship Game? To the Citrus Bowl? Belk Bowl?
There’s still much to be determined before the team returns to practice in August.
Last summer, the team rarely worked outside in the heat, leading to a sluggish fall camp and slow start to the season.
New strength coach Rock Gullickson has made sure that isn’t the case this offseason, but he’s only one man, and it’s up to the players to prepare themselves in many other ways.
Here are the five biggest questions for the Vols to sort out behind the scenes in July:
1. Summer 7-on-7?
Who’s in charge here? The unsupervised 7-on-7 workouts have not yet begun, begging the question as to which player has the leadership and authority to organize them.
As always, there’s a risk factor any time athletes compete, and Tennessee will be careful not to put itself into the same position as last season when injuries triggered losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt in the second half of the season.
Tennessee players talked a lot about doing everything they could to make sure they never lose to the Gamecocks or Commodores again. We’ll see.
2. Injured starters?
Speaking of minimizing injuries, how healthy are linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. and defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie?
— Linebacker World (@LBworld44) July 1, 2017
Tennessee needs big seasons out of Kirkland and McKenzie, both of whom have the talent to turn pro after this season with great production.
Neither one of these All-SEC talents have proven they can stay healthy over the course of a season, and the summer is the time to be building themselves up for a 13- or 14-game schedule.
McKenzie has looked good in the weight room, clearly over the strained pectoral muscle he sustained in October against Alabama.
Kirkland has battled knee and ankle problems, even out of season, and is a bit more of a mystery at this stage of the offseason.
3. Difference makers?
Tennessee junior receiver Jauan Jennings has kept himself out of the headlines since the spring football game after overcoming a minor knee injury. Can Jennings continue to stay between the lines? He’s the Vols’ most explosive playmaker.
Louisville graduate transfer Shaq Wiggins arrived with a lot of hype, but at 5-10, 175, not a lot of size. Does Wiggins have the physicality to play the type of man coverage and run support defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is looking for? Or will his role be more situational against multi-receiver teams?
Vols junior John Kelly is “The Man” in the backfield entering the season, having proven himself the toughest and most versatile of the options returning.
But who will be the No. 2 and No. 3 options for Tennessee? Will there be a No. 4?
Carlin Fils-aime returns after his injury-plagued freshman season and will be No. 2 entering fall camp, but new offensive coordinator Larry Scott will be sure to give the incoming freshmen backs opportunities.
Ty Chandler was the most celebrated runner in the class, but he arrived with a dicey pulled hamstring and will be a question mark until he hits the jets in August.
Trey Coleman and Timothy Jordan are the other incoming backs, and a couple of early reviews are that Jordan is better than the 3-star ranking he was tagged with.
5. The quarterbacks?
Of course, you can’t read a Tennessee story without some mention of the Vols’ gunslingers, where a starter has yet to be named.
Junior Quinten Dormady is a heavy favorite to take the first snap in the Sept. 4 season opener, but redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano could prove just as important.
Guarantano possesses great athleticism and dual-threat talents, and even if Dormady proves as steady as most expect, the New Jersey product could help put Tennessee over the top.
Quarterbacks coach Mike Canales has not ruled out a two-quarterback system, and Jones has left the quarterback competition open for one reason — and that reason is that Guarantano has a high ceiling.
The question is, how far along will Guarantano be by Sept. 4, and what sort of package will Canales and Scott have for him in the offense?