KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — While Tennessee has turned its focus on Nebraska before breaking for Christmas, the Vols spent several early bowl practices giving younger players added individual attention.
The focus on player development has paid dividends for a defense desperate for depth, as multiple vets lauded the performances by freshmen Marquil Osborne and Daniel Bituli.
While it’s unlikely either newcomer will make a real splash in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30, both players are expected to “press for spots” in 2017 after mainly playing special teams as freshmen.
“Marquil Osborne, he’s been making major strides to improve his craft and better himself,” redshirt sophomore nickel-back Rashaan Gaulden said.
“He’s a playmaker.”
Osborne appeared in 10 games, recording 5 tackles including a sack. With Cam Sutton and Malik Foreman graduating, Osborne is among the contenders to claim a starting corner spot.
Meanwhile, Bituli earned praise all season for his physicality and athleticism, with position coach Tommy Thigpen calling him “the future.” Although the freshman struggled to see the field due to the nuances of the defense, fellow linebackers Darrin Kirkland and Cortez McDowell said Bituli has really started to really pickup the mental aspects of the game with the extended opportunities this December.
“He’s done a great job,” Kirkland said.
“He’s seen his role kind of pick up during bowl practices. He’s getting a lot more reps. … He’s starting to bring that mentality to our defense that we need every week.”
Said McDowell: “He’s really made strides learning the defense. When he first got here, like a lot of guys, we’d stay late and just talk through things with him. The progressions and stuff. The more he’s been around us, in meetings, seen things visually, he’s really picked up and made some big strides.”
With no Jalen Reeves-Maybin next season, Bituli has a real chance to start opposite of Kirkland. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker is cross-training at both the MIKE and the WILL, using the extra reps to speed up his development.
“I feel like it will be very beneficial,” Kirkland said.
Other defensive players to turn heads during bowl practices include redshirt freshman defensive end Darrell Taylor and junior-college transfer Alexis Johnson. Johnson continues to battle conditioning concerns, but the big defensive tackle has shown a propensity to make plays. Taylor has made noise in practices before, but thus far, he’s mostly known for creating a viral hashtag earlier this fall.
“He’s going to be special when his time comes,” Gaulden said.
“He’s been one of those guys that shows up everyday to work. He’s been making plays in the team segments. He’s going to be ready to go next year.”