The Tennessee football program's love affair with new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop continued throughout the third week of spring practice, as that side of the ball continued to take strides toward being one of the most talented units in the SEC.
But Alvin Kamara and the Vols offense took some real shots for the first time all spring.
The junior running back ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run in a scrimmage where the offense got the best of the defense consistently for the first time all spring. It was just a sign of things to come for AK and fellow junior Jalen Hurd, who should provide one of the best tandems in all of football.
The UT athletics production department already is getting ready for the hype machine that will be surrounding those two.
That long run is one of the few highlights you'll see out of Tennessee's "Run CMG" duo this spring. After all, the "Chain Moving Gang" can't churn out yards in chunks this fall if they get hurt in April. That fact isn't lost on Tennessee coaches.
"You look in the NFL—I talked with guys from the Seattle Seahawks—and Marshawn Lynch doesn't need to get hit during practice," Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespie told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown. "He's going to be in car wrecks all Sunday 16 Sundays out of the year."
But all Vols fans know (and brag) about Hurd and Kamara. Let's take a look at some positive developments from the past week, the third full week of Tennessee spring practice 2016.
Sophomore defenders taking the next step
Last week was all about headlines revolving around a pair of second-year defensive ends who weren't household names for most Vols fans last year in sophomore Austin Smith and redshirt freshman Darrell Taylor.
A couple of guys you do know about are now beginning to take a step forward toward stardom.
Two of the biggest coups of UT's 2015 recruiting class were middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. and defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie. Kirkland was a budding star last year, and McKenzie began to live up to his lofty status as the season wore down.
This spring, they've been all over the place.
The big hope for UT when Jalen Reeves-Maybin went down with a spring-ending injury was that Kirkland would take over the role of being the unequivocal leader of the defense. He's done that and more.
It's safe to say they're hitting it off.
First, the first-year Tennessee defensive coordinator told GoVols247's Wes Rucker that sitting in the film room with his two star linebackers was "like watching film with 10-year NFL vets." Kirkland reciprocated the love by saying that Shoop had a "beautiful mind."
Those words led to a hilarious tweet from Knoxville News Sentinel reporter Grant Ramey, who routinely owns Twitter with his humor:
It would be massive for Tennessee if Kirkland grew into the kind of player he's capable of being this spring and carried it over into an All-SEC campaign a year after earning freshman all-conference honors.
Speaking of reaching potential, McKenzie was a 5-star prospect coming out of high school in California and is the son of Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie.
So much was expected of him right away—perhaps unfairly so, considering he was ineligible as a senior after transferring and also dealt with a knee injury.
But he's still huge and back to throwing people around this spring. Once he gets his technique down and stays consistent in doing those things that defensive tackles must do to be successful, he's going to be a load to handle.
Even so, coaches know how great he can be, and they aren't cutting him any slack, including defensive line coach Steve Stripling, who told Brown:
Filling the void
The player Tennessee will miss most off the '15 squad isn't longtime emotional leader Curt Maggitt or four-year starting safety Brian Randolph. It won't be strong, burly defensive tackle Owen Williams or departing receiver Von Pearson.
Instead, it'll be left tackle Kyler Kerbyson, a journeyman offensive lineman who played about everywhere you can think of along the front during his five seasons with the Vols.
Though he probably was always better-suited for the interior, the Knoxville native shifted outside as a senior and stabilized the exterior of the left side, protecting Dobbs' blind side.
This year, former highly-recruited lineman Drew Richmond will try to step into those big shoes.
With right tackle Chance Hall hurt this spring, Brett Kendrick is looking good holding down the right side. Richmond is making strides, too, but just because there isn't a ton of depth out there, it doesn't mean UT couldn't wind up moving a guard out there.
Richmond must do well, and so far, he's getting better and better, he told Rucker:
I'm just working on my consistency. It’s an every-day battle. Your mental ability takes you farther than your athletic ability, and I've been learning that. I work every day to continue to work on my mind to go through things with adversity, and just try to condition my mind to be more consistent and finish plays and play up to the standard that we hold ourselves to.
When he shifted over to left tackle, Richmond said everything changed. He even began to favor his left hand in daily routine activities just to get used to it, he told Rucker:
Will all that dedication pay off? It's hard for a freshman to step into such a pivotal role, even a redshirt freshman. But the Vols desperately need somebody to fill the void of Kerbyson. Richmond looks like he may be the answer.
Not only did the highlight happen in Saturday's scrimmage with Kamara's 80-plus-yard touchdown run, but the more important things occurred, too.
You aren't going to get long gains every game, though the Vols will certainly take those when they get them. Situationally, UT needs to be sharper than it was a season ago offensively.
The Vols did some nice things in short-yardage situations, and quarterback Joshua Dobbs showed his competitive drive by scoring a pair of touchdowns. Goal-line drills ultimately helped the offense pull away, and though the passing game reportedly wasn't as sharp in the windy conditions, UT made strides.
According to Brown, coach Butch Jones asked multiple times for "clutch plays" from "clutch players." That's a far cry from previous years when the UT coaches were trying to find guys upon which they could depend.
Now, they know. They just need to see it on a consistent basis. Dobbs told Brown the echoed words aren't anything they don't already know.
[Jones is] saying it a lot, but when you look back at the last five games we've lost over the last two seasons, it's come down to one or two plays that literally have changed the game. We're just looking for guys that are able to embrace the moment, step up when their number's called and go up and make a play when we need them to as an offense and defense.
Apparently, they responded.
Much of camp has been about UT's defense really looking strong despite having injuries all over the field. That speaks to the depth on that side of the ball.
But the offense is winning its share, too. And there was no doubt who came through on Saturday and who gets to keep the Smokey Gray helmets that go to the winners, according to Rocky Top Insider:
Rocky Top roundup
- Everybody is excited about the potential of redshirt senior Jason Croom moving from receiver to tight end. But how has the experiment gone so far? Swimmingly, UT offensive coordinator Mike DeBord told Rucker: "Obviously, he's a guy that can create mismatches, you know? We can work to get him the ball down in the red zone and stuff like that, which we're doing. We're adding things as we go."
- According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, sophomore runner John Kelly had a rushing score and a receiving score in Saturday's scrimmage. As said, UT knows what it has in Hurd and Kamara, but Kelly's emergence this spring is exceptional news for the future.
- Some may assume that the trio of Vols who returned for another season rather than going pro (Kamara, Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton) just didn't get the draft grades they expected. Sutton probably turned down millions, however, and he's a major factor for UT. Shoop is seeing it on a daily basis. "I knew he was good, but I didn't realize he was this good," Shoop told Brown. "He's a pro."
All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered at UTSports.com unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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HOUSTON — The competition level at Houston's Delmar-Tusa Athletic Complex was high, and by the end of Sunday afternoon, seven athletes were invited to The Opening this summer in Beaverton, Oregon.
Also receiving invitations were two out-of-town athletes in IMG Academy (Florida) linebacker Dylan Moses—the No. 2 player overall in the 2017 class—and Oregon cornerback commit Elijah Molden. Both Moses and Molden are making return trips to The Opening after going as incoming juniors last summer.
Here are some updates from Sunday's event.
High school teammates relish honor
Episcopal High School in Houston is the home to two national top-150 players in Marvin Wilson (No. 4 overall, No. 1 DT) and Walker Little (No. 149 overall, No. 25 OT). Both are excited not only about earning the invitation to Oregon but also about representing their school.
"It's awesome," Little said. "It feels great to come out here and get a lot better, and it's great to compete against the great competition."
"I'm on top of the world right now," Wilson added. "Now that I've got this envelope, I'm more happy than anybody."
Wilson and Little play for a school with an enrollment of less than 700. Both have heard outsiders question the talent level at Episcopal and on the school's schedule.
Getting two athletes to The Opening helps validate what Episcopal brings to the table.
"A lot of people say that we're just a private school, and we don't play anybody," Wilson said. "We just came out and showed that it doesn't matter who you play. If you've got talent, you've got talent."
To which Little added: "It's all about representing the school. We feel like we can do well and win a lot of games because we have some decent talent. I think this shows it."
A second invite: veteran status for Moses?
Dylan Moses won't mind being called a veteran of The Opening. In his eyes, earning a second trip to the prestigious summer event is quite the accomplishment.
Moses competed last summer and said he is excited about earning the return invitation. He got it Sunday with consistent efforts in drills and solid one-on-one performances.
"It's going to be real good going back and competing with my classmates," he said. "It's always good to go against the best of the best. There will be a lot of competition."
And will this be an opportunity for Moses to play the veteran role?
"Not really," Moses said. "I'm just looking to go out there and have fun."
Texas flight works in Molden's favor
How do you top a great weekend visit to Stanford? For Oregon legacy and West Linn, Oregon, prospect Elijah Molden, taking a trip to Houston and earning a return invite to The Opening was in the plans.
Molden, who was in Beaverton last summer for the event, said he had a great trip to Stanford and added that the trip to Houston was icing on the cake to a very productive weekend.
"It was just an opportunity for me to check out the competition, and there's great competition here," Molden said. "I came from a visit from Stanford; it just worked out with the flights.
"I feel good. I tested a little better in some categories, but there's always stuff to improve on. I'm going to go back home and work on my craft."
The son of former Oregon and NFL defensive back Alex Molden, Molden has Oregon, Stanford and Notre Dame high on his list.
Carter: 'Nothing but great competition here'
In short, Toneil Carter described the atmosphere at the Delmar-Tusa Athletic Complex.
"We're in Houston," he said. "There's nothing but great competition here."
Carter showed his abilities on Sunday and earned a trip to The Opening in the process. He then spoke about the mission at hand, which was being coachable and learning as much as possible.
"I just want to keep performing at the top level," Carter said. "From there, it's all about taking it to the next level. I came here to do my thing, so I'm feeling pretty good."
Carter, the nation's No. 6 running back in the 2017 class, has 18 reported offers and said he will take his time with recruiting. However, a decision will be made this year, as he plans on enrolling early.
"I'm going to take all my officials and then make a decision," he said.
The Opening alumni make appearance
Last year, athletes like Deontay Anderson, Dontavious Jackson, Jeffrey McCulloch and Tyrie Cleveland were running the drills, completing the skills competitions and listening to the coaches to earn a trip to The Opening. At the end of the day, it was mission accomplished.
On Sunday, the four athletes, who are now preparing for college football, were in attendance again—not to compete but to see the future athletes of the event.
"It's always good to come back," Anderson said. "They just need to listen to the coaches and make sure they're getting better."
Jolivette ran the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.35 seconds during skills testing. He also claimed "Fastest Man" honors during a five-man race featuring the fastest 40-yard times of the day.
Davis impressed the crowd with a vertical jump of 45.8 inches, which is the highest recorded jump of the 2016 The Opening circuit thus far. He went on to win the ratings MVP award with a score of 124.08. Davis, who has a dozen offers, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.63 seconds, finished the 20-yard shuttle in 3.95 seconds and threw the power ball 35 feet.
Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles
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