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VOL. 132 | NO. 80 | Friday, April 21, 2017

Who Will Grab the Spotlight in Vols' Spring Game?

BY DAVE LINK, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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Tennessee completes its fifth spring practice under head coach Butch Jones on Saturday, April 22, at 4 p.m. with the DISH Orange & White Game at Neyland Stadium.

Wide receiver Marquez Callaway showed flashes of excellence last season when he returned one punt for a 62-yeard touchdown against Georgia and another went for 52 yards. Butch Jones expects to use Callaway more in the coming season.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack via AP)

It’s merely the beginning as the Vols prepare for the 2017 season.

Despite back-to-back 9-4 seasons and bowl wins, Tennessee has fallen short of its goal of playing for an SEC championship. The Vols haven’t won the SEC East since 2007, the year before Phillip Fulmer was fired.

Odds are stacked against Tennessee winning it this year. Georgia will be favored to win the East. Athlon Sports’ early prediction has Tennessee third in the East behind Georgia and Florida.

UT must replace record-setting quarterback Joshua Dobbs and several other NFL prospects topped by defensive end Derek Barnett, projected as a first-round pick.

Saturday’s spring game isn’t an actual scrimmage and is mostly for show. The hard work has already been done behind closed doors at Haslam Field and the Anderson Training Center. Media gets a short glimpse of the Vols at the start of each spring practice.

“It’s been a very, very productive spring,” Jones said last week. “But now it’s how we finish, and we have to continue to gain momentum during the summer.”

Two of the most scrutinized players in the spring game will be redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and junior Quinten Dormady. They’re competing for Dobbs’ job, along with redshirt sophomore Sheriron Jones.

There was no question about UT’s No. 1 running back. He’s junior John Kelly. But who’s his backup? And who’s going to get all the carries of Alvin Kamara (NFL Draft) and Jalen Hurd (quit team during season)? And with leading receiver Josh Malone gone to the NFL, who is UT’s top receiver behind Jauan Jennings?

Here’s a look at some Vols to watch Saturday who are new to the program or returning backups who can play a bigger role in 2017: 

Offense

No. 27: Carlin Fils-Aime

Running back, 5-11, 175 pounds, sophomore, Naples High/Naples, Florida

Fils-Aime needed a big spring – and needs a big push through the summer – to enhance his chances of earning the No. 2 running back’s job behind Kelly.

His carries were limited as a freshman playing behind Kamara, Hurd and Kelly. Fils-Aime played in seven games as a true freshman and had 14 carries for 58 yards and two touchdowns.

With four-star freshman running back Ty Chandler of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy arriving this summer, Fils-Aime will have instant competition for the backup’s job. Look for Chandler to play as a true freshman, regardless.

No. 7: Will McBride

Quarterback, 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Clear Springs High/League City, Texas

Nobody expects McBride to compete for the starting job this fall, but what future does he have with the Vols?

If Sheriron Jones is odd man out of the quarterback race – or if whomever isn’t the starter – there is potential for transfer, which could leave McBride third in the depth chart.

McBride wasn’t a big-time recruit – a consensus three star – but his dual-threat abilities fit what the Vols need. 

No. 10: Tyler Byrd

Wide receiver, 6-0, 195 pounds, sophomore, Naples High/Naples, Florida

Byrd switched from cornerback to receiver before 2016 fall camp and caught 15 passes for 209 yards, which was third among Tennessee’s wide receivers (behind Malone and Jennings).

Jennings might be the Vols’ No. 1 receiver this year, but Byrd has a chance to take a big leap forward. He’s also a potential kickoff returner after averaging 33 yards on three returns against Vanderbilt, including a 67-yarder.

No. 9: Marquez Callaway

Wide receiver, 6-2, 190 pounds, sophomore, Warner Robins High/Warner Robins, Georgia

Callaway was pretty much a non-factor as a true freshman in 2016. In six games, he caught one pass for 13 yards, and returned two punts for 114 yards – the second going for a 62-yard touchdown against Georgia.

Jones expects to see much more from Callaway in 2017 and compared his work this spring to freshman phenom Trey Smith, a five-star offensive lineman and January enrollee.

“Marquez Callaway has been one of the individuals we’ve really asked a lot of,” Jones said. “I’d put Marquez Callaway in the same category as Trey Smith.”

No. 8: Latrell Williams

Wide receiver, 5-11, 175 pounds, redshirt freshman, Columbia High/Lake City, Florida

Jones mentioned Williams as one of the younger players who stood out this spring, so a carryover into fall camp could be big for him and the receiving corps.

His star ratings in high school ranged from four star (ESPN.com) to two star (Rivals.com), but there’s no doubting his speed and abilities as a receiver. He’s run a 4.27 40-yard dash, and caught 68 passes for 1,035 yards and nine touchdowns as a high school senior.

No. 68: Marcus Tatum

Offensive tackle, 6-6, 265 pounds, sophomore, Mainland High/Ormond Beach, Florida

Tatum wasn’t complaining this spring when asked about playing only two games in 2016 – against Alabama and Tech – and burning a redshirt season.

Instead, Tatum said the game experience will help him get on the field more in 2017. Against Alabama, Tatum was inserted in place of injured left tackle Brett Kendrick, and two weeks later came off the bench against Tennessee Tech.

The Vols needed Tatum this spring with Kendrick, Chance Hall, and others on the O-line out. His extensive reps will help when fall camp starts.

Defense

No. 21: Shanon Reid

Linebacker, 6-0, 205 pounds, freshman, Dunbar High/Leigh Acres, Florida

One of five January enrollees, Reid has impressed linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen this spring working at weak-side linebacker. He’s getting extra reps with redshirt sophomore Quart’e Sapp and senior Elliott Berry out with injuries.

Reid makes up for lack of linebacker size with his speed and athleticism, and while starting in 2017 is a long shot, he should be a special teams standout and be in the linebacker rotation.

No. 98: Alexis Johnson

Defensive tackle, 6-4, 295, redshirt junior, Mount Zion Prep, Atlanta, Georgia/Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College

Johnson’s off-the-field problems caused him to miss the 2016 season. Now, he’s poised to make the impact expected as the No. 2-ranked junior college prospect in 2016 by 247Sports Composite.

He’s been getting first-team reps in the spring due to the depleted front, and if he continues strides in conditioning, can be a big factor in 2017.

No. 1: Jonathan Kongbo

Defensive end, 6-6, 270 pounds, redshirt junior, Holy Cross High/Surrey, British Columbia/Arizona Western Community College

Remember all the hype about Kongbo going into the 2016 season? Well, he didn’t exactly play up to the billing as the nation’s No. 1 junior college prospect by 247Sports, but he made enough plays to show big-time potential.

UT’s shortage of defensive ends has given Kongbo a great opportunity. He’s moved to his preferred defensive end again after playing the interior much of 2016. With Barnett, Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis prepping for the NFL Draft, Kongbo has gotten enough reps this spring to show what he can do.

No. 3: Marquill Osborne

Cornerback, 5-11, 188 pounds, sophomore, William Amos Hough High/Cornelius, North Carolina

With star corner Cameron Sutton gone to the NFL, Osborne had a big opportunity this spring for first-team reps – and that was before Emmanuel Moseley went out with a shoulder injury.

Not that Osborne might nudge senior Justin Martin or Moseley out of a starting job, but he’s gotten himself into the mix, and if he stays healthy, he’ll be on the field in 2017.

No. 18: Nigel Warrior

Safety, 6-0, 186 pounds, sophomore, Peachtree Ridge High/Duluth, Georgia

Warrior made the All-SEC freshman team in 2016, so it’s not like he didn’t make a splash last year. He played in 12 games with one start (vs. Missouri at strong safety) and had 22 tackles (19 solo).

The son of former UT and NFL defensive back Dale Carter, Warrior earned praise from Jones and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop this spring. No surprise there. Warrior was rated a five star by Scout.com and the No. 1 safety in Georgia coming out of high school.

No. 35: Daniel Bituli

Linebacker, 6-3, 235, sophomore, Nashville Christian School/Antioch

Bituli has the size and athleticism to be an impact player and will be hard to keep off the field in 2017. He could play middle linebacker if junior Darrin Kirkland Jr. makes the move to outside.

Last year, Bituli played in nine games and had a season-high five tackles against Vanderbilt and nine total tackles. His biggest contributions were on special teams, but that could change this fall if/when the Vols play more 4-3 schemes than 4-2-5s.

No. 19: Darrell Taylor

Defensive end, 6-4, 240 pounds, redshirt sophomore, Hopewell High, Waverly, Virginia

Taylor had the athleticism to play wide receiver and kickoff returner as a high school star in Virginia, and three years into Tennessee’s strength and conditioning program have put him on track to be a playmaker off the edge.

With Barnett, Vereen, and Lewis gone, Taylor’s chance is now. 

No. 11: Austin Smith

Linebacker, 6-3, 236 pounds, redshirt sophomore, Buford High/Buford, Georgia

Smith came to Tennessee as a 230-pound linebacker and played in 13 games as a true freshman, making one start and three tackles. Along the way, Smith gained about 30 pounds, and last spring he moved to defensive end.

After getting hurt in spring and again in fall camp, Smith took a redshirt season. Now, he’s lost the 30 pounds and moved back to his natural position at linebacker. Look for him to carry a solid spring into summer workouts and fall camp.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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