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VOL. 132 | NO. 164 | Friday, August 18, 2017

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Dave Link

Wolf, Offense Look To Prove Predictions Wrong

Dave Link, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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Vol senior tight end Ethan Wolf will have a big adjustment to make this fall with Joshua Dobbs, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, no longer throwing to him. (Donald Page | Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)

It’s championship or bust for Tennessee senior tight end Ethan Wolf.

Bowl victories are nice. So are nine-win seasons. But Wolf wants a lot more in his final season with the Vols.

“Our goal here at Tennessee every single year is to win a championship, and that’s going to remain the goal,” Wolf says. “Yeah, there may have been a little bit of excitement the first year, maybe the second year winning the bowl game. It’s always exciting, but that’s the bare minimum right now.”

Coach Butch Jones enters his fifth season at UT with three consecutive bowl victories and back-to-back 9-4 seasons. But the Vols didn’t win the SEC East last year as preseason favorites, and the team couldn’t capitalize in 2015 when they also had a chance.

Now, the Vols are underdogs, picked third in the East behind Florida and Georgia, and No. 24 in the nation in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll.

Wolf isn’t worried about predictions.

“We don’t really look into the preseason hype and stuff like that,” he explains. “We hear about it, but truthfully, who’s to say we’re whatever, the seven, eight, nine team in the country last year (preseason No. 9) as opposed to whatever we are now.

“I don’t even know, before we even play a game, so I just look at it as kind of irrelevant until we go out and play a game. Of course, we don’t like hearing negative things about our team, but we’re going to come out and play as hard as we possibly can Week 1, and the rankings will go from there.”

UT starts the season Sept. 4 against Georgia Tech in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Georgia Tech finished 9-4 last season after a 33-18 win over Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Wolf, a three- and four-star recruit out of Minster (Ohio) High, has been a starter since his freshman season in 2014 (11 starts in 12 games). He has 34 career starts and 66 career catches for 737 yards and four touchdowns.

Wolf will line up alongside UT’s most experienced position group. Its offensive line has a combined 111 starts. Yet, it has plenty to prove. The Vols gave up 25 sacks last year with mobile Joshua Dobbs at quarterback and gained 240 fewer rushing yards than in 2015.

“We have new guys coming in, and it’s great competition,” Wolf adds. “I think we’re going to have depth and we’re going to be a strong offensive line this year.”

But they won’t have Dobbs, now a Pittsburgh Steeler. Dobbs led the Vols in rushing (831 yards) and rushing touchdowns (12) and threw for 2,946 yards and 27 touchdowns last year.

He’s not the only playmaker gone. Josh Malone, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, was Tennessee’s leading receiver (972 yards, 11 touchdowns). Alvin Kamara, now with the New Orleans Saints, was third in rushing (596 yards, nine TDs) and tied for second in receiving (40 catches, 392 yards, four TDs).

Wolf has confidence in UT quarterbacks Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano, among others on the 2017 offense.

“Josh did a lot last year, and we had playmakers, and we still do have playmakers this year, who maybe just weren’t showing as much last year,” Wolf points out. “We lost Josh, but we have two great guys who are competing for the job right now that are going to do things different than Josh, maybe better than Josh did. Nobody’s going to be like Josh, and nobody’s going to be like Quinten, nobody’s going to be like Jarrett. They’re all their own player. But we definitely have playmakers at all the skill positions.”

As the Vols complete their third week of preseason camp, here’s a look at the offense.

Quarterbacks

Dormady (6-4, 222 pounds), a junior from Boerne (Texas) High, left spring practices with a slight edge over redshirt freshman Guarantano (6-4, 200) in the most-watched duel for a starting job, and that hasn’t changed as the Vols prepare for their final week of fall camp.

Dormady, who’s played in 10 games in two years, has worked with the first-team offense this fall, but don’t be surprised if Jones and staff plan to play both quarterbacks in the first two games. With a tune-up against Indiana State on Sept. 9 at Neyland Stadium, Jones wants to make sure he has the right guy behind center for the Sept. 16 game at Florida.

Look for Dormady to take the first snap of the season, and look for Guarantano to get his snaps, too, in the first couple of games.

Offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Larry Scott said last week the quarterbacks are progressing.

“They’re just constantly being challenged in every way for our overall quarterback development,” Scott acknowledges. “Kind of happy with where those guys are right now, but like I said, it’s still really early, [we’ll be at] practice [No.] nine of 26 before we get ready to go down to Atlanta and play. [I’m] happy with where we are, but we know where we need to get to before we’re ready to go.”

True freshman Will McBride of Clear Springs High in League City, Texas, is No. 3 and the only other scholarship quarterback, thanks to the departure of Sheriron Jones in January. Walk-on Zac Jancek, who played at Knoxville Catholic High, is no longer on the roster; he’s the son of former UT defensive coordinator John Jancek, who recently took an administrative job on Kentucky’s football staff.

McBride, a three-star recruit, is a dual-threat quarterback who seems to fit the Vols system. He led Clear Springs, which is near Houston, to a 9-2 record last year against some of the best competition in Texas.

Fans need to keep an eye on McBride in case the loser of the Dormady-Guarantano competition opts to transfer.

Running backs

It’s John Kelly (5-9, 206) and the competition. That sums up Tennessee’s running back situation.

The junior from Oak Park High in Detroit was UT’s second-leading rusher last year behind Dobbs with 630 yards, and his 6.4-yard rushing average led the team.

Kelly’s backup is the big question. Sophomore Carlin Fils-aime (5-11, 183), who played in seven games last year and rushed for 58 yards, must fend off three freshmen for the No. 2 running back’s job.

Ty Chandler (5-11, 195) of Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville is the highest rated of the three – a consensus four-star and the No. 5 prospect in Tennessee by Rivals and 247Sports.

However, Tim Jordan (5-11, 196) of Bartow High/Winter Haven, Florida, has shown in camp he could challenge Chandler and Fils-aime for the backup job – despite being a two- and three-star prospect.

Trey Coleman (5-11, 214) of West Monroe (Louisiana) High is the third freshman running back. He’s a consensus three-star who ran for 1,369 yards and 12 touchdowns as his team finished state runner-up in Class 5A.

Jones said all three freshmen should play this year.

“I think they’re pushing John Kelly and he’s doing a great job of also bringing energy and teaching them the expectations,” Jones says. “All three are going to have to play, and they’re going to be very important to the success of our season.”

Wide receivers and tight ends

Wide receiver Jauan Jennings, who will forever have a spot on the UT football highlight reel after last year’s game-winning catch against Georgia, might be the only player at the position already penciled in as a starter. (File/ Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)

There’s been plenty of competition in the wide receiver group. Only junior Jauan Jennings (6-3, 209) of Murfreesboro Blackman High appears to have locked down one of the three starting jobs.

Jennings, who started nine games and played in 13 last year, tied for second on the team in catches with Kamara’s 40, and his 580 receiving yards and seven TD catches were second only behind Malone. His Hail Mary catch to beat Georgia was a 2016 highlight, and if UT has a playmaker, it’s Jennings.

Senior Josh Smith (6-1, 206) has 18 career starts but has been hampered by injuries throughout his career. He started six games at slot receiver last year and had 13 catches for 97 yards and a touchdown.

Sophomores Marquez Callaway (6-2, 199), Tyler Byrd (6-0, 195) and Brandon Johnson (6-2, 193) are competing for starters roles along with redshirt freshman Latrell Williams (5-11, 175) and freshman Josh Palmer (6-2, 198).

Of those, Byrd was the most productive last year with 15 catches for 209 yards.

Scott said the receivers have been the biggest surprise to him during camp.

“I think right now it’s probably been more the receiving group, being that there’s some young guys in there that played a little last year but now they’re in some roles that have [been] picked up for them,” Scott says.

“The way that they just have responded to everything, some of the things we’ve been doing a little bit differently than we have in the past and different things like that.

“I think that group has really kind of been a surprise, yet still has so far to go to be ready. But we’re definitely encouraged with what’s in that position.”

With Wolf holding down the starting tight end job, the battle for No. 2 is between senior Jakob Johnson 6-3, 250), sophomore walk-on Eli Wolf (6-4, 224), and true freshman LaTrell Bumphus (6-3, 258), a three- and four-star recruit from Hardin County High in Savannah, Tennessee.

Offensive line

Jones announced last Friday junior Chance Hall, a probable starter at right tackle, will miss the season with a knee injury. Hall was one of four players limited at the start of camp, along with junior linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., sophomore middle linebacker Daniel Bituli, and junior defensive tackle Shy Tuttle.

The O-line is still UT’s most game-experienced position group with only starting center/right guard Dylan Wiesman having exhausted his eligibility in 2016.

Hall, who is set to have surgery, suffered a knee injury in preseason last year, underwent arthroscopic surgery and returned for the fourth game against Florida. He’s got 13 career starts, six last season and seven as a true freshman.

Two potential starters, true freshman Trey Smith and senior Brett Kendrick, along with sophomore Marcus Tatum, missed time last week with what Jones called minor injuries.

Kendrick (6-6, 318), who played at Christian Academy of Knoxville, started the first two games and last four games last year at right tackle. He started the other seven games at left tackle and has 20 career starts. Tatum (6-6, 281) could move into the backup spot behind Kendrick with Hall out.

Smith (6-6, 320), the five-star recruit from University School of Jackson, should start at right guard. Third-year sophomore Venzell Boulware (6-3, 306) will be in the rotation at right or left guard.

Senior Jashon Robertson (6-3, 300), a three-star lineman from Montgomery Bell Academy, started 12 of 13 games last year at left guard and will start there or at center. If he’s at left guard, senior Coleman Thomas (6-5, 309) is the likely starter at center, where he started seven games last season.

If Robertson is at center, which seems likely, junior Jack Jones (6-4, 312) of Murfreesboro Oakland High and Boulware become the probable starters at left guard.

Third-year sophomore Drew Richmond (6-5, 309) of Memphis University School looks like the starter at left tackle with Kendrick the backup.

True freshman K’rojhn Calbert (6-5, 316) of Warren County High in McMinnville has jumped out during camp, mostly at right tackle, be reports are he will redshirt this season.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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