By Stephen K. Lee
After weeks of preseason training and kickoff in Nashville just days away, the Tennessee players and coaches are just as excited as the rest of Vol Nation for the 2015 season to begin.
The sweltering heat of early August has lowered to a late-summer simmer at Haslam Field, signaling that fall is on the horizon and it is almost Football Time in Tennessee.
All of the hard work poured into training camp and battles for starting spots will pay off once the whistle blows for the Vols to take the field against Bowling Green on Sept. 5 at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. Tennessee’s assistant coaches give answers to questions regarding player progression, team depth and starting spots.
One of the most hotly contested positional battles of last spring and this fall’s training camp has reached its final stages, according to defensive coordinator John Jancek.
“It’s really been narrowed down,” Jancek said of the MIKE linebacker competition. “To get three guys reps at this stage in the season, in camp, preseason, it’s hard to do. It’s really between Colton Jumper and Darrin Kirkland [Jr.].”
Jancek noted that Jumper’s work ethic is what set the sophomore, Lookout Mountain product apart from the rest of the linebacking unit.
Senior Johnathon Johnson is having one of the best camps of any UT receiver. Johnson and Jauan Jennings have benefited from being healthy every day of camp, enabling them to improve with each practice.
The 5-8 Texas native received praise from wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni for his hard work and leadership.
“Jonathan Johnson I can’t say enough about that kid,” Azzanni said. “He is one of our best football players on this team in my opinion. Just because of everything he brings in special team value. He’s a leader. He’s smart and can play every position. He’s a senior playing his best ball right now and that’s what a senior should do.”
On paper, the Tennessee running back corps looks anything but experienced. The sophomore duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara headline a group that features two true freshmen and another redshirt sophomore. Even the lone upperclassman of the group is a newcomer in redshirt senior transfer Ralph David Abernathy IV.
Despite the relative newness that precedes the Vols tailback unit, running backs coach Robert Gillespie is thrilled with the depth and experience he has found in this group.
“In this league, the best groups have guys who can lead by example and I think for [freshmen] John Kelly and Joe Young, to have two guys like Alvin [Kamara] and Jalen [Hurd] to show everyday them how to practice, how to study in the meeting rooms, being accountable to each other. I think it’s been really good. Both those guys are going to be able to help us this year.”
With two leaders taking the reins of a young and talented group, Gillespie believes Tennessee’s running backs are becoming one of the complete units in a running-back-heavy Southeastern Conference.
One year ago, the biggest question surrounding Tennessee’s defense was who would fill a holes on the defensive line. Now, the defensive line represents one of the deepest units on the team and depth has become a luxury to coach Steve Stripling.
“I think we will go in with 10 that I will feel good putting on the field,” Stripling said on the number of guys he is comfortable with playing. “Obviously, Bowling Green presents the tempo issue, so you aren’t able to substitute exactly when you want, but I feel like we can go out there with 10 guys.”
Having depth on the line means that Tennessee can spread out the amount of reps and keep fresh legs on the field.