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VOL. 8 | NO. 35 | Saturday, August 22, 2015

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Dave Link

Vols Nearly Set on Offense as Season Approaches

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

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With Tennessee’s football team three weeks into fall camp, the offensive depth charts are set at some positions, while others remain open.

UT coach Butch Jones enters the 2015 season with no questions at quarterback or running back. His has plenty of receivers and all should get their share of playing time.

Alvin Kamaraa, along with sophomore Jalen Hurd, will give the Vols a pair of talented running backs with distinctly different styles.

(Andrew Bruckse/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)

The offensive line, however, has the most to prove on that side of the football. It was shaky much of last year, and questions remain. Plus, UT lost its most experienced offensive lineman, senior left guard Marcus Jackson, due to injury during camp, and there has been constant shuffling among linemen and positions. At least a couple of freshmen likely will be in the two-deep rotation.

With the Sept. 5 season opener against Bowling Green in Nashville approaching, let’s take a look at the Vols’ offense:

Quarterback
Joshua Dobbs is the most watched player on offense and clearly its leader, and not just because he’s the quarterback. He is the perfect fit for UT’s zone-read offense, which became apparent when Jones scrapped the idea of redshirting Dobbs last year and brought him off the bench for the third series against Alabama in Game 8.

In his five starts, Dobbs went 4-1 and the offense averaged 36.7 points and 431 yards offense per game.

He wasn’t great against Missouri (a 29-21 loss) and Vanderbilt (a 24-17 win), but he was spectacular against South Carolina (school quarterback rushing record 166 yards in 45-42 win) and was MVP in the 45-28 victory over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

It no surprise Jones that freshman Quinten Dormady has already been named the No. 2 quarterback. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Dormady had an advantage over 6-2, 182-pound fellow freshman Sheriron Jones due to being a January enrollee.

Jones and Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman High arrived in the summer playing catch-up with Dormady.

When Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman High was moved to wide receiver early in camp, it left the No. 2 job a two-player race, but Butch Jones wants both freshmen to be ready.

“Sheriron is two snaps from being in a game,” Jones said after UT’s practice last Saturday at Neyland Stadium, which was open to fans.

“You have to pick your spots in order to get him reps, but Quinten has gained some very valuable repetitions. It is amazing with (Dormady) to see the progress that he made in spring ball and the confidence he gained and really be able to continue to grow on that.

Wide receiver Alton “Pig” Howard will lead a talented and deep group of receivers.

(Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)

“He’s playing at a high level right now. He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now. He will play, and we have to make sure that he is ready to go. As we know, Sheriron has to be ready to go as well.”

Running backs
This is a new-look unit for the Vols, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

UT should have an outstanding one-two punch in sophomores Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara with each bringing far different running styles.

Hurd is a bruiser, and Kamara is shifty and speedy.

Although listed at 6-3, 227 pounds, Hurd has beefed up in the weight room and weighs more than 240. The additional muscle is hard to miss. The former Hendersonville Beech standout was a punishing runner as a true freshman last year and will be even more powerful this fall. He ran for 899 yards and five TDs last year and will be shooting for that mark this fall.

“I feel more explosive,” Hurd said during the second week of camp. “Being bigger, I can take more impact, stuff like that. I’ll be more durable (during) the season.”

Hurd is the Vols’ only returning scholarship back from the 2014 roster.

Newcomers include Kamara, a five-star junior college recruit who originally signed with Alabama and took a redshirt season in 2013. He ran for 1,211 yards (134.6 yards per game) and 18 touchdowns in junior college play last year.

Jones likes the Hurd-Kamara combination.

“They are very competitive and they are doing a great job of really mentoring our freshman running backs along with Ralph David (Abernathy IV),” Jones says. “So they’ve done a very good job. They’re consistent and work exceptionally hard.”

Abernathy, who signed with Cincinnati in 2011 when Jones was its head coach, transferred from the Bearcats and was granted a medical redshirt season in 2014. He’s a graduate student and joins his brother, 2015 defensive back recruit Micah Abernathy, on the Vols’ roster.

Ralph David Abernathy’s best season at Cincinnati was in 2013 when he ran for 518 yards and five TDs in 13 games, but lingering heel and hamstring problems put him way behind last fall. He moved from running back to slot receiver, had three catches for 26 yards in two games, and then went to the sideline for good.

Abernathy returned three kickoffs against the Vols during UT’s 45-23 victory over Cincinnati in 2011 – probably Derek Dooley’s highlight as UT’s coach.

Senior Kyler Kerbyson, who played for Knoxville Catholic, will be a starter somewhere on the offensive line for the Vols this season.

(Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)

Micah Abernathy is listed at 5-7, 161 pounds, but has a compact body and shiftiness to go with it.

Receivers
This unit got a huge boost when senior Von Pearson was reinstated to the team Aug. 7 after the Knox County District Attorney General’s office said it had insufficient evidence to pursue rape charges against him. He was suspended April 24 when Knoxville police announced he was a subject in the alleged rape of a 19-year-old girl.

Pearson (6-3, 183 pounds) was the Vols’ second-leading receiver in 2014 with 38 catches for 393 yards in 11 games with the team-high five TD catches.

“To his credit, he’s in very good shape,” Jones said Aug. 8 after Pearson’s first practice since his suspension. “You could tell, just with the football endurance, that he’s worked at it.”

Jones said Pearson’s retention level was high despite being off the team for almost four months.

UT returns almost its entire corps of receivers from 2014, when it was decimated by injuries. The only losses are Jacob Carter to graduation and Drae Bowles, Ryan Jenkins, and Vic Wharton to transfers. They combined for seven catches and 84 yards and one touchdown.

Freshman signee Joc Bruce, former South-Doyle High School standout, didn’t enroll and is now at Middle Tennessee State University. Bruce plays receiver, running back, and defensive back.

Leading the returnees is Alton “Pig” Howard, who caught 54 passes for 618 yards and one touchdown. He enters his senior season 13th on Tennessee’s career catches list with 111. Howard played in all 13 games with nine starts last year.

Junior Marquez North was third in receiving last year with 30 catches for 320 yards and four touchdowns before having surgery Nov. 26, 2014, for a torn labrum. He missed spring practice.

Junior Jason Croom was next with 21 catches for 305 yards and four touchdowns, but missed the TaxSlayer Bowl with a knee injury in preparation for the game. Croom also missed the spring.

North and Croom were held out of last Saturday’s open practice at Neyland Stadium, while Howard was limited. Look for Howard and North to start, barring injury later in camp.

Wide receiver Vincent Perry is one of Vols’ many talented receivers.

(Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)

Josh Malone, a 6-3 sophomore out of Station Camp High in Gallatin, will certainly be in the receiver rotation. Malone caught 23 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown last year, and Jones likes the consistency during the first two weeks of camp.

Jones’ switching Jennings from quarterback to wide receiver immediately bolsters this unit.

At 6-4, 200 pounds, Jennings is a natural at wide receiver due to his size and the athleticism he showed as a three-sport athlete (football, basketball, track) at Blackman High.

Tight Ends
UT’s added a tight end and lost a tight end during the first two weeks of camp.

Out is redshirt sophomore tight end A.J. Branisel, who decided to transfer. In is redshirt freshman Jakob Johnson, who moved from linebacker to tight end a few days before Branisel’s decision was announced Aug. 11.

Johnson started games at middle linebacker last year against Missouri and Vanderbilt when starter A.J. Johnson was dismissed.

Sophomore Ethan Wolf of Minster, Ohio, is back after starting 11 games in 2014 – including the opener against Utah State when he became the first true freshman to start at tight end in school history. Wolf had 23 catches for 212 yards last season, was limited early in camp, but was back for the open practice last Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Jones likes Johnson as a tight end.

“We see the ball skills every day with all the ball drills that our linebackers do,” says Jones. “He has a very good skill set in terms of catching the ball. He’s a very tough player. You try to help the young man get on the field, but also how can you help your football team, too?”

Offensive line
Two weeks into fall camp, the Vols took their biggest hit injury-wise when Jones revealed Aug. 11 that Marcus Jackson probably will miss the rest of the season, and if he comes back, it would only be for a bowl game.

Jackson started every game except Alabama when senior Kyler Kerbyson, former Knoxville Catholic High standout, got the start.

Several media outlets reported Jackson has a torn biceps, but Jones won’t confirm the injury.

Kerbyson will be there somewhere on the offensive line, which took a beating much of 2014 but improved when Dobbs entered at quarterback (the Vols gave up 30 sacks in the first seven games, and after Dobbs entered, allowed 13 in the last five games.)

Kerybson started all 13 games last season at three different positions: right tackle (two), left tackle (10) and left guard (one).

Jashon Robertson, a sophomore from Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy, started all 13 games at right guard last season.

He became the fourth true freshman offensive lineman to start the season opener along with Bill Mayo (1981), Michael Munoz (2000), and Ja’Wuan James (2010).

Robertson, who earned All-SEC freshman honors, missed last Saturday’s open practice, but Jones expects him back soon.

The Vols’ biggest loss to graduation was right tackle Jacob Gilliam, who started the last six games at right tackle.

Kerbyson started the first two games at right tackle, and sophomore Coleman Thomas started the next five.

Thomas will be in the mix for a starting job again after an impressive first two weeks of camp.

Mosley, a redshirt freshman from Brighton (Tenn.) High, is still on the team and worked with the first team offense during last Saturday’s open practice. He’s moved from the defensive line to offense this year.

Senior Mack Crowder started all but two games at center and should retain the starting job. Crowder, who played at Bristol’s Tennessee High, missed the Kentucky and Missouri games with a leg injury but returned for the bowl game.

Junior Dylan Wiesman started two games at center when Crowder was hurt and can also play the left guard spot left with Jackson’s injury.

Also back at tackle is junior Dontavius Blair and at right guard sophomore Austin Sanders. Each lettered last year.

Two true freshmen will get serious looks to be in the two-deep: four-star tackle/guard Jack Jones of Murfreesboro Oakland and five-star offensive tackle Drew Richmond of Memphis University School.

Jones was a January enrollee and Richmond arrived in the summer.

While the Vols have some options on the offensive line, it’s a unit that must show improvements from the 2014 season.

Jones wants his linemen to be versatile so many are working at several positions during camp.

“We have been cross-training (with the linemen),” says Jones. “Some individuals have gone from center to guard, and some from guard to tackle. As we know, it’s a very long season.

“We have some playing one position. Jack Jones is playing guard. That’s all he is playing, so he is able to hone in on the skill set that is required from that position. … We have moved Brett Kendrick around to see where he can best fit the football team.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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