Tennessee has to prepare for both the immediate and distant future during bowl practice, which began on Monday.
The Vols don’t have a major overhaul on their hands after this month, but they’ll lose some key components that helped them to an 8-4 record, their best regular-season mark since 2007.
Tennessee’s secondary will be without its “quarterback” after the Outback Bowl when senior safety Brian Randolph’s career will come to an end. Randolph started 38 games for the Vols during his career. In 2015, he was second on the team with 67 tackles. Fellow senior safety LaDarrell McNeil will also be moving on after starting nine games this season.
The Vols seem in good hands at one of the safety positions. Sophomore Todd Kelly Jr. continually showed flashes of brilliance in his two seasons at Tennessee. The other safety position is a bit more unsure. The Vols are expected to lean on kick returner Evan Berry to man that spot.
“I think he’s ready to take over at safety,” Randolph said.
That safety shake-up comes after a season in which no one could lock down the cornerback position opposite Cameron Sutton. Sophomores Emmanuel Mosley and Justin Martin continually competed for the job.
The Vols may also be without Sutton and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Both could forgo their senior season and enter the NFL draft. Sutton seems like the more likely of the two juniors to go pro.
“These individuals are focused on the bowl game and focused on getting better as players,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said when asked about the possibility they may leave school early.
Both are expected to test the waters via the NFL College Advisory Committee.
“If you have an opportunity to be a first-round draft choice, that’s a tremendous opportunity,” Jones said. “If not, it’s an education process.”
Tennessee has time to figure out how it wants to replace special teams coordinator/tight ends coach Mark Elder, who will coach with Tennessee through the Outback Bowl before becoming the head coach at Eastern Kentucky. Graduate assistant coach Nick Sheridan is thought to be a viable candidate for the vacancy.
“He has an interview every day,” Jones said of Sheridan, who has primarily worked with Tennessee’s quarterbacks in his two seasons with the Vols.
All the question marks give this bowl camp a far different feel than last season. Tennessee is a strong favorite to beat Northwestern in consecutive trips to Florida bowls. The higher-ranked Wildcats could have a chip on their shoulder, unlike Iowa last year when the Hawkeyes seemed ready for the season be over after sky-high preseason expectations.
“We approached (last year’s bowl) with the mentality that we were going to put on a show,” Reeves-Maybin said. “We’ll try to take the same approach this year.”