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VOL. 8 | NO. 18 | Saturday, April 25, 2015

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Dave Link

Kelly, Berry Battle for Safety Spot in Legacy Showdown

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

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Todd Kelly Jr. concludes his first spring practice with Tennessee’s football team this week in a heated competition for a safety job.

No surprise there.

Sophomore defensive back Todd Kelly Jr., one of the top freshmen in the SEC last year, is one of many young Vols to watch during Saturday’s Orange & White Game.

(Tennessee Athletics/Ruth Dudley)

Kelly, former all-state player at Webb School of Knoxville, was an impact player as a true freshman in 2014.

He led all SEC freshmen with three interceptions, recovered a fumble, played in all 13 games, and started three. He will be one of UT’s young stars to watch during Saturday’s Orange & White Game.

His coach at Webb, David Meske, expected nothing less.

“First of all, he’s a very physical kid for being as young as he is,” Meske says. “The other thing is he’s really smart. He learns fast. I knew that would help him adjust from the high school level to college.”

How smart is Kelly?

Well, he’s taking pre-med classes while memorizing UT’s defensive playbook.

Kelly wasn’t just a four-star recruit and top-five prospect in Tennessee as a senior at Webb, he was a standout in the classroom, as well.

“He was an extremely successful student at Webb,” Meske said. “He wants to be a doctor, and he’ll be one.”

Kelly wants to make a name for himself at UT, too.

He’s one of seven legacy freshmen in UT’s 2014 signing class. His father, Todd Kelly, was an All-SEC defensive end for UT in the early 1990s.

Defensive back Evan Berry is locked in a competition for a No. 2 safety spot with fellow sophomore Todd Kelly Jr.

(Tennessee Athletics/Andrew Bruckse)

Much was made of the legacy class when it arrived at UT, but Kelly says the group has moved ahead now.

“We take great pride in that, but now that we’re here, we want to focus on that,” explains Kelly Jr. “We want to focus on school and just making a difference for the University of Tennessee.”

Kelly and another member of the legacy class, Evan Berry, are vying for the backup’s job in 2015 behind senior safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil.

Look for the Berry-Kelly competition to continue into fall camp.

Berry, brother of Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, has maintained focus on football and school despite Eric’s ongoing fight with cancer.

Kelly likes having the competition.

“He’s a great player, but at the same time, I’m just trying to work on my craft,” Kelly adds, of [Evan] Berry.

“I see he’s working hard, so I have to work hard as well, but at the end of the day, I’m going to try to perfect myself and get better at what I need to get better at, but it’s always great to see your teammates get better on the field. We love to just push each other, and we both try to make plays out there.”

They might find themselves on the field at the same time in the future.

Randolph, a third-team All-SEC player in 2014, will be in his fifth year with the Vols this coming fall. McNeil will be in his fourth year without a redshirt season.

Kelly embraces the chance to learn from players with more game experience and the challenges that go with it.

“You want competition, so we have a lot of guys back there who can make plays, so whenever somebody’s tired, you can call in the next person and hopefully you won’t go down a notch,” says Kelly.

“We all push each other, watch film with each other, when one messes up, we try to correct each other, and when we make plays we congratulate each other.

“So that’s what it’s all about, and that’s one reason I came here, was able to compete and have fun out there.”

Kelly chose Tennessee over numerous other schools, including Alabama, Florida and USC, after helping Webb win Division II-A state championships during three of his four years in high school.

It wasn’t a big surprise he picked the Vols. Nor was it a surprise he was on the field early.

Meske adds Kelly has all the intangibles and abilities to “have a huge impact on the University of Tennessee.”

“I’d say first of all, he’s a great kid,” Meske says. “He’s wonderful with his teammates, and he’s so positive all the time. To me, that’s the most important thing.

“Second, he’s an exceptional student, and Webb’s not an easy school.

“The third thing is he’s been given the gift of having the body and the abilities to be very successful athletically.”

With the Orange & White Game concluding spring practices, let’s take a position-by-position look at the Vols heading into the summer.

Note: Player classes are for the 2015 season.

Quarterback
With the starting job secure, junior Joshua Dobbs spent the spring honing his passing skills and mentoring the two January enrollees at his position, Quinten Dormandy of Boerne (Texas) High and Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman High.

UT coach Butch Jones isn’t big on depth charts, so don’t expect him to pinpoint Dormandy or Jennings as the No. 2 quarterback heading into summer. If anything, the two will probably be slotted as co-backups behind Dobbs.

Freshman quarterback Sheriron Jones arrives in the summer after graduating from Rancho Verde High in Perris, California, but he might have a tough time moving ahead of Dormandy and Jennings in the summer and fall while learning the playbook.

UT is in a much better quarterback situation this year heading into summer than last year, when there was no clear No. 1. The consensus is Dormandy has an edge over Jennings after spring practices, but that could change in the summer.

Running Back
Sophomore Jalen Hurd of Hendersonville Beech was wearing a green non-contact jersey during the spring after having offseason shoulder surgery, so five-star sophomore Alvin Kamara got the majority of the repetitions in spring.

With Kamara out briefly due to a thigh bruise, the Vols worked him with Hurd during non-contact drills together in the backfield. It could be a preview of this fall, when UT lines up the speedy Kamara next to the bruising Hurd.

Kamara, of Norcross, Ala., High, was redshirted at Alabama in 2013 before going to Hutchinson Comm. College.

Hurd and Kamara are UT’s only scholarship running backs until freshman John Kelly arrives in the summer. Kelly is a three-star recruit as an athlete out of Detroit, where he rushed for 1,321 yards and 21 touchdowns last fall.

While the Vols have a potent one-two punch in Hurd and Kamara, depth at running back is an issue as summer approaches.

Offensive Line
Sophomore Coleman Thomas will be in the mix again on the offensive line for fall camp after theft charges were dropped against him. He returned to spring practice April 16.

Thomas was the backup at left tackle behind January graduate Jacob Gilliam, but started five games in 2014 when Gilliam was injured. Gilliam was the only full-time starter on the offensive line who completed his eligibility in 2014.

Thomas could also play center, where senior Mack Crowder of Bristol started 11 games last season.

Sophomore Jashon Robertson of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy enters the summer as a likely starter on the offensive line. He started all 13 games at right guard last season – earning All-SEC freshman honors – and also worked at center with Crowder and Thomas in the spring.

Also returning are backup linemen Austin Sanders and Dylan Wiesman. Wiesman started two games at center when Crowder was injured.

Sanders, a sophomore from Bradley Central High, had a big spring – working with the first unit at guard – and will be a potential starter when fall camp begins.

Senior Kyler Kerbyson, former all-state player at Knoxville Catholic, should be a starter in 2015 somewhere on the line. He started all 13 games at three different positions last season: right tackle (two games), left tackle (10), and left guard (one).

His backup at left tackle, sophomore Brett Kendrick of Christian Academy of Knoxville, will also be in the mix after a good spring, along with January enrollee Jack Jones of Murfreesboro Oakland.

Another early enrollee, Chance Hall of Northside High in Richmond, Va., and redshirt junior Dontavius Blair have the edge for getting into the rotation over four incoming freshmen.

However, freshman offensive tackle Drew Richmond of Memphis University School arrives with big expectations this summer.

UT’s woes on the offensive line in 2014 were well documented, and heading into the summer this unit looks to be improved.

Wide Receiver/Tight End
This injury-riddled unit of 2014 did some healing in the spring, and after a summer of workouts, should be one of UT’s best units – if it stays healthy.

Alton “Pig” Howard enters summer as the top returning wideout. Howard spent a late spring scrimmage in a non-contact green jersey, but only due to bumps and bruises.

Von Pearson had a solid spring after suffering a season-ending ankle injury in 2014, along with Josh Smith, former CAK standout who also sustained a season-ending injury in 2014.

Others wideouts to keep an eye on heading into summer include Marquez North, Johnathan Johnson and Jason Croom.

Junior Cody Blanc, former Knoxville Central all-state player, missed most of the spring on the sideline with a rib injury.

Sophomore tight Ethan Wolf enters the summer as a top candidate to start at tight end with Alex Ellis and Neiko Creamer in the competition.

UT also adds freshman tight end/split end Kyle Oliver of Murfreesboro Oakland and freshman wide receiver Preston Williams of Lovejoy High in Hampton, Ga., to its receiving corps. They’re the most likely impact receivers.

Defensive Line
It’s tough to judge where the defensive line stands after the spring and heading into summer.

Much of the front line missed the spring due to injuries, including defensive end Derek Barnett, tackle Danny O’Brien, hybrid linebacker/end Curt Maggitt, and January enrollee Kyle Phillips. Two others, Corey Vereen and Owen Williams were limited.

Barnett, a sophomore front Brentwood Academy, was a freshman All-American, and Maggitt was an All-SEC second-team player. O’Brien started 12 games at tackle and Vereen 11 at end. Williams was O’Brien’s backup. And if the Vols have an impact freshman on the line, it’s Phillips, out of Nashville Hillsboro.

By fall camp, don’t be surprised if Barnett, Maggitt, and O’Brien are No. 1s on the depth chart after getting healthy in the spring.

Sophomore Dimarya Mixon will be in the rotation after switching from end to tackle during spring, along with freshman Shy Tuttle, a January enrollee from North Davidson High in Midway, N.C.

They worked with the No. 1 front in the spring along with junior LaTroy Lewis and sophomore Kendal Vickers. Others in the rotation were senior Chris Weatherd, January enrollee Andrew Butcher, junior Charles Folger, and redshirt freshman Charles Mosley.

While this unit’s work was limited in the spring, it will pay off in the fall. There will be some healthy competition on the defensive front in fall camp with the returnees and newcomers, including freshmen Kahlil McKenzie and Quay Picou, who arrive in the summer.

Linebacker
Junior Jalen Reeves-Maybin, former Clarksville Northeast High standout, enters summer as a starting linebacker in both the 4-3 defense and nickel package after a solid spring.

Maybin started every game at weak-side linebacker last season and tied for the team-high 101 tackles with middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, who was dismissed from the team in November after an alleged sexual assault. Johnson was a senior in 2014.

There will be ample competition continuing in fall camp for Johnson’s vacated spot at in the middle.

Sophomore Jakob Johnson, who started the last two games of the regular season at middle linebacker, missed the spring due to injury and will be a candidate for A.J. Johnson’s job.

So will redshirt freshman Dillon Bates, who was impressive in the spring. Bates came back from a torn labrum four games into the 2014 season and made the move from outside to middle linebacker.

Junior Kenny Bynum, starting middle linebacker in the TaxSlayer Bowl, enters the summer in the mix along with sophomore Cortez McDowell.

Darrin Kirkland Jr. was a January enrollee, so he’s got a jump on UT’s two summer enrollees on the line, Quart’e Sapp and Austin Smith.

Replacing a player with NFL potential like A.J. Johnson won’t be easy, but the Vols have several options.

Secondary
UT had a secondary setback late in spring when sophomore cornerback Rashaan Gaulden suffered a hand injury and had surgery, but he’s expected to be full speed by the summer.

Gaulden was the backup in UT’s nickel package last year behind Justin Coleman, a senior and the only departed starter in the secondary.

Sophomore Emmanuel Moseley missed the start of spring practices with mononucleosis but made a fast recovery in time for the spring game. Moseley was the backup to junior Cameron Sutton at cornerback in the 4-3 defense and a starter in the nickel package.

Junior Malik Foreman, former Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett standout, will contend for Coleman’s vacated cornerback spot in the fall after serving as backup in both the 4-3 and nickel package last season.

Justin Martin, a transfer from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Community College, is also a potential replacement for Coleman’s spot at corner. Martin played at Nashville Overton High before going to junior college.

Brian Randolph anchors the secondary as a four-year starter at free safety, and senior LaDarrell McNeil returns as the starter at strong safety. McNeil started seven games as a true freshman in 2012 and has been a fulltime starter ever since.

If Randolph and McNeil need a breather, Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry plan to be ready when it’s their time.

Despite the loss of Coleman, UT’s secondary appears to be solid heading into the summer.

Dave Link is a freelance contributor.

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