NCAA Football News
Injuries infiltrated Tennessee's football program last season, nearly derailing the Vols' hopes of a late-season rally and bowl run.
They overcame them thanks to some spectacular individual performances (such as quarterback Joshua Dobbs' against Vanderbilt) and an opportunistic defense.
UT wound up with a convincing TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa that reverberated good vibrations for the program into the offseason.
But reality is going to bite the Vols again this spring in the form of injuries. Even though head coach Butch Jones has built a talented roster, the depth is still not where it needs to be, and that will be obvious when drills begin March 24.
While the good news is there are no expected long-term effects that could threaten anybody's season, Tennessee is going to be razor-thin:
- Only five scholarship defensive linemen are going to be healthy and green-lighted, and leaders Derek Barnett, Curt Maggitt and Danny O'Brien are out.
- There's just one running back available and cleared for contact with Jalen Hurd limited.
- Several of the highly touted mid-term enrollees, such as defensive end Kyle Phillips, middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. and offensive tackle Chance Hall are unavailable or hobbled.
We do have to modify that, and I think that's symbolic in terms of where we still are as a program. We have a shortage of defensive linemen, running backs and wide receivers. The spring game will still be very entertaining. We'll still play football and scrimmage, but we'll also do more competitive one-on-one battles.
We did that a little bit last year, and our fans really enjoyed that. So we'll make it an event, but I think it will be more of a spring event than a spring game.
The fallout from missed practice time could affect the season even if the injuries won't. Here are some areas to watch:
Last year, the mid-term enrollees who arrived in Knoxville early got a head start and produced on the field.
Hurd, Dillon Bates, Von Pearson, Daniel Helm, Ethan Wolf, Dimarya Mixon, Coleman Thomas, Jakob Johnson and Emmanuel Moseley were all January arrivals who played key roles on last year's squad.
The latter is a 6'2", 235-pound middle linebacker who has all the elite skills needed to step in and play at one of the positions on UT's roster that will be wide open. The Indianapolis-born linebacker tore a pectoral muscle in winter workouts.
Phillips, on the other hand, is an in-state star who wasn't being depended on to start with Barnett and Maggitt manning the ends, but he has the ability to provide quality depth. Shoulder surgery will be an obstacle he must overcome in order to do that.
Neither is expected to miss any game action. But will they be hampered by missing time, and will it affect their roles on the 2015 Vols? The injuries could hurt them and the team.
Tennessee really struggled against the run at times during 2014. Most of that was because of the lack of beef along the interior—a need UT addressed with the additions of Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle.
But part of the reason was the lack of depth.
Now, entering 15 spring practice sessions where Jones said the Vols will have just five scholarship linemen available doesn't give Tennessee fans a warm-and-fuzzy feeling.
With Barnett, Maggitt and Phillips out and Corey Vereen limited, that's four of the team's top five defensive ends. Only LaTroy Lewis will be full-go from last year's rotation.
The depth issues will produce a huge opportunity for mid-term enrollee Andrew Butcher to prove he should earn meaningful reps right away.
On the inside, McKenzie won't arrive until this summer. But O'Brien's injury issues mean UT will be down one starter.
Tuttle, Mixon and Kendal Vickers have shots to work into the rotation on the inside. That's good for depth and the future, but considering some key players are missing from the lineup, the Vols will have to fix run-defense issues in the month prior to kickoff.
This spring is a pivotal period in the development of Dobbs. Not only is he needed and expected to be more accurate throwing the ball this year, he also has a new offensive coordinator in Mike DeBord.
With the defense extremely limited by injuries, spring's primary focus for the Vols needs to be on the offense humming along at the same frequency—quarterback, receivers, running backs, linemen and coaching staff.
That's why it's frustrating that two of UT's upperclassman receivers, including the team's most talented target in Marquez North, will be limited following season-ending surgeries.
If Tennessee's passing game is going to shine, North needs to be involved. He has elite skills, and if he puts everything together, he's talented enough to play in the NFL as soon as next year.
Also, Jason Croom is a 6'5", 243-pound specimen who could be a force inside the 20-yard line. He needs to develop consistency, and in order to do that, he needs to be healthy.
There is still more than enough talent in that Tennessee receiving corps to provide an abundance of assistance in Dobbs' development.
So, the Vols junior signal-caller will have to take some major strides without two of his biggest weapons at full-strength and just integrate them once they're healthy.
It shouldn't be a major deal, but any time a new offensive coordinator is thrown into the mix, there's at least a moderate concern warranted about everybody being on the same page.
That's another reason why the DeBord hire was a good one.
Middle Linebacker Battle
As if losing Kirkland for the spring wasn't a big enough blow, Bates is going to be limited, too.
That's the two most athletic players in the five-man battle to be heir to the middle linebacker throne vacated by A.J. Johnson.
Kenny Bynum, Jakob Johnson and Gavin Bryant all will be healthy and ready to vie for the job this spring, and Bates should get some action, too, if he's able. But the real race now has to begin this fall when all parties are available.
It's not an ideal situation, but it's that way at many different positions for the Vols this year. Unfortunately for Jones and a UT team with high expectations, it's the climate of this spring.
All statistics gathered from UTSports.com, unless otherwise noted. All observations gathered firsthand.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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