The Volunteers were a popular pick last pre-season to do very well, but ultimately lost too many close battles that hurt them, leading to a 3-4 start which left some feelings of “what if” given that they went on to finish with a 9-4 record in the end, their best since 2007. They lost one game in overtime, and the other three by a combined 10 points. With the vast majority of their key players returning, Tennessee again are getting a lot of hype entering the new season, and should have a number of quality players part of the next draft as well.
THE TOP 5
Derek Barnett, Jr, EDGE, #9 – 6ft 3, 268 lbs
Gotta love how this upcoming edge rushers class is setting up to be, and Barnett features among the top names at the position entering the start of the new season. In terms of production there has been few better over the last couple seasons, taking the SEC by storm right from his freshman season. He started early, 10 of the 13 games total and finished with an outstanding 72 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss (TFLs), 10 sacks and 8 QB hurries. There was a little bit of a drop off in the TFLs his second season but with his destructive play, any fall statistically is more a reflection of the extra attention and double teams he quickly earned to try and contain him, and he still compiled another 69 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, 10 sacks again, 7 QB hurries, a pass break up and a forced fumble. That total of 141 tackles from a defensive end over two seasons is a hugely impressive number that reflects his all-round game that includes being a beast against the run, not just chasing after QBs. Barnett isn’t the most explosive immediately off the snap, nor has as much length in his frame as might be more prototypical, but those are minor issues at worst. Barnett is powerful, physical, smart and technically excellent. And don’t get me wrong, he is a very good athlete as well. He has some very effective and well-developed rush moves, great hands, turns the corner brilliantly and transitions to power very well to unbalance offensive lineman. He delivers a heavy punch on first contact to give him the early advantage, then does a fantastic job dipping under the hands of his blocker, ripping past and closing down the QB. Making him even more difficult to keep in check, Barnett is versatile in where he lines up, on the end of both 4-3 and 3-4 alignments, standing up from a 2-point stance, and also at times more from the interior, including at times on 1st and 2nd downs, not just on obvious pass rushing 3rd down situations. A third season as productive as the last couple, and the 2017 draft first round awaits.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Sr, LB, #21 – 6ft 1, 225 lbs
Consecutive triple-digit tackle seasons for Reeves-Maybin is a good place to start to highlight the fantastic impact that the dynamic linebacker delivers. The converted safety is small by previous standards for what constitutes an NFL level prospect at the position, but not these days, where fast, athletic and instinctive hybrid-types are not just common but highly coveted by most teams these days. The senior put together a second straight year of big production numbers with 105 tackles, 14 TFLs, 6 sacks, 3 hurries, 4 pass breakups and 2 forced fumbles. His success is built around the quickness with which he reads plays and reacts, then the quickness of his closing speed to fly to the action. The anticipation and recognition are fantastic, and his position coach has described Reeves-Maybin as the smartest linebacker he has ever worked with. Part of those recognition skills likely come from his background as a quarterback in high school that helps his understanding of offenses and reflects the playmaking abilities when he puts it all together. Barely a play seems to go by when he is not in the vicinity of the action. Having said that, and despite the high totals, he cannot be excused for the occasional missed tackle that do occur every now and then. His smaller build and average strength are perhaps factors in that, and those areas might not make him an ideal fit in everyone’s defensive scheme at the next level. But should he get selected to a team who are able to make the most of his game, then he has the potential to reproduce his exciting style of play as a pro that he’s made at the college level.
Jalen Hurd, Jr, RB, #1 – 6ft 2, 230 lbs
As has been mentioned many times and will continue to be, there is a very deep looking running back class for the next NFL draft, and because of that, some quality prospects are a little bit under the radar and under-discussed from a media-attention perspective. There’s no hiding for Hurd though in a crowd of RBs, as he is, frankly, massive for the position. Some reports are suggesting that he might even be up to 6ft 5 tall in reality (why is it so hard to get proper measurements of college players pre-combine?). Whatever the truth is, his height is rare for a runner, and could in fact be looked at somewhat negatively from a perspective of pad level, balance and centre of gravity points of view. What is positive and impressive is how well Hurd moves at his size, there’s no questioning that. The big back isn’t just powerful, but has athleticism and good footwork to go with it. Starting nine games his true freshman year, he made an early impact finishing just shy of 900 yards on the ground, before a superb 2015 season that saw him total 1,478 offensive yards and 14 touchdowns. On top of the physical traits and power, it’s hard not to love Hurd’s physicality and effort he puts into his carries, fighting for extra yards, grinding up the middle as a bruising back. He works well in traffic and in winning against interior linemen and middle linebackers where he is at his best. The vision and decision making are under-praised also. With 57 receptions over the past two seasons, he’s regularly been able to make an impact out of the backfield as a receiver too. Where he is less effective is the attempts to go laterally and try and find the edge. He tries it often, but is corralled more often than not for little to no gain, and is not utilising his abilities efficiently by attempting those runs which will only get more difficult at the next level. Though the athleticism is good and he can pound for long runs, he doesn’t have true breakaway speed to outrun the defense all the way once in the open. Pad level as mentioned can certainly be an issue on plenty of his touches. There’s sure to be differing opinions on his build, but he’s got a physical, athletic game and plenty consistent success against a high level of competition.
Cameron Sutton, Sr, CB, #7 – 5ft 11, 189 lbs
Emerging reports from scouts during the last draft process were that Sutton would have been a top 50 pick had he chosen to leave a year early, as much for his ability as a punt returner on special teams as anything else, an area where he is so dangerous with 3 taken back all the way for touchdowns over the past couple seasons. His actual play on defense at cornerback has been questionable at times however, and certainly took a big drop in his man coverage effectiveness in particular in 2015, allowing completions on 52.5% of targets thrown his way. While he has straight line speed and in his role as a returner, Sutton looks really stiff in his movements and his backpedal, and slow to react and change directions when trying to stay with his assignments in defending against the pass. That led to some easy separation allowed and saw him burned bad often by a number of the more dynamic receivers he’s faced. He’s proven to be quite exploitable by QBs who use their eyes and pump fakes, then with receivers who use double moves on him too. He has not enjoyed his time facing Alabama in particular the past couple seasons, struggling to cope with both Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley in consecutive meetings. In addition to some of the struggles in coverage, Sutton’s run support isn’t overly inspiring either. While he is good at getting his hands on receivers in press coverage, his strength and physicality looks a lot poorer versus the run which often sees him easily controlled and blocked away from being able to make a tackle. I’ve also noted quite a few times when he hasn’t really hustled anyway, looking to prefer to let his teammates do the dirty work rather than get involved if possible. He’s flashed plenty great plays as well though, that’s for sure, including 19 pass breakups and 4 interceptions over the past two seasons (majority in 2014 with a drop in 2015). Overall, scouts seem to like him, but I remain very sceptical about his prospects at the next level with so much inconsistency and deficiencies in his primary role as a corner, no matter how good a punt returner he may be.
Joshua Dobbs, Sr, QB, #11 – 6ft 3, 212 lbs
It’s been a very, very gradual process over the last few seasons for Dobbs’ game to progress. There’s no doubting the fantastic athletic traits that he possesses but his game has gone from very raw to less raw, a statement which is minor at best in its compliments. That is from a projection point of view in terms of the next level – in the college game he is all set to have a fantastic season for the Vols in what could at last be the year for the team to challenge for the SEC title again. He’ll need that. Dobbs showed plenty of improvements from his freshman to sophomore season, but that levelled off a bit his junior year last season that saw his completion rate drop from 63.3% to 59.6% as some evidence of that. Improvements in other statistics were made elsewhere though, with his TD/INT ratio going from 9/6 in 2014 to 15/5 in 2015. While he wants to be a more complete QB and as a passer, he still deserves plenty of praise for what a great dimension his athleticism and creativity with his legs brings; it’s a great facet of his game that he uses well, including 19 rushing touchdowns over the past two years for the dynamic playmaker. Against Florida last season in a narrow loss, Dobbs bizarrely managed to lead his offense in pass yards, rush yards and receiving yards. That comes with negative connotations as well given that his low total of just 83 pass yards allowed for that to be achieved in the first place. As a passer, Dobbs again has some great physical traits with very good arm strength that can put plenty zip on his throws and launch the ball deep. That said, the accuracy on those deep balls is too inconsistent currently. His overall footwork and pocket presence remains technically poorer than hoped for at this stage. While his quickness on the move is great, his ability to throw on the run when he is bootlegging out of the pocket also reduces his accuracy and effectiveness on such plays. He has so much upside though, and as is well known by now Dobbs is extremely intelligent off the field that is encouraging to his ability to learn and develop his game mentally going forward, and has all the intangibles you could want to give him the chance of delivering on the upside that is certainly there.
OTHER PROSPECTS TO WATCH
Alvin Kamara, rJr, RB, #6 – 5ft 10, 210 lbs
Though he is both a junior and a complimentary runner alongside Dobbs rather than a true lead back, Kamara needs to be listed here as his impact is more than enough that a second successive big season could well be enough to depart early for the 2017 draft. He reportedly strongly considered leaving for the 2016 draft in fact. Though limited to just 107 rushes last season, Kamara took those for 698 yards at 6.52 yards per carry and 7 scores. His added ability as a receiver out of the backfield is a big part of his dangerous overall game, and added 34 receptions and 3 touchdowns as a receiver as well. Even though he only had 8 attempts, there were flashes of special teams ability as a punt returner as well that saw him take 1 of those opportunities for a touchdown in that phase of the game as well. Kamara originally signed with the Alabama Crimson Tide out of high school in the same recruiting class as Derrick Henry. But after redshirting his first season, along with some behaviour issues and a bowl game suspension, he left the program for junior college, before re-appearing in the SEC with Tennessee last season. He has matured since his early days in college, so much so that he’s now a team captain. Kamara has a short but well-built frame and is a very good athlete with plenty of burst that contributes to his versatile, dynamic skill set. His decision making on some runs shows that he’s still learning, but generally knows when to get north and head up field, at times for big impact, big yardage gains. There’s very likely to be not one but two Tennessee running backs selected in the next draft.
Corey Vereen, Sr, EDGE, #50 – 6ft 2, 253 lbs
The defensive end saw plenty action last year with the injuries to Curt Maggitt, and has built good experience with 18 starts over the past two years, chipping in with some solid numbers including 39 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 8 hurries and a pass breakup last season. Along with quickness and a good motor, he likes to make use of a decent swim move on his route into the backfield. He will stand up off the edge as well, a good thing as he’s built more for that role, lacking the ideal length for playing end at the next level, but though he also will drop back occasionally, doesn’t in truth look all that natural doing so. A solid player though, who could earn a draft selection with a good senior year.
Dylan Wiesman, Sr, OG/C, #71 – 6ft 3, 305 lbs
At his best as an aggressive run blocker, frequently pulling right to left as the lead man for his running back. He’s significantly less effective in pass protection however, allowing pressure through gaps under his responsibility, and failing to anchor well when faced with the bull rush that sees him regularly pushed back a few steps into the pocket. Wiesman’s size might see a better fit at center rather than guard and he does have previous starting experience there earlier in his career.
Danny O’Brien, rSr, DL, #95 – 6ft 2, 282 lbs
After starting 12 out of 13 games in 2014, O’Brien was suspended before the start of the 2015 season, and after being re-instated his overall role was reduced, not earning his starting position back and instead playing in a rotational role. He was still able to contribute 14 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 sacks and a pass breakup.
Jason Croom, rSr, TE/WR, #18 – 6ft 4, 235 lbs
Injuries have severely limited Croom throughout his collegiate career. He took a medical redshirt in 2012 after his season was ended by a shoulder injury 3 games in. While able to play the majority of both 2013 and 2014, a broken collarbone and a knee injury occurred late each year, before a subsequent scope of the same knee cost him all of last season. The big target has been able to make some plays when he has been able to stay on the field though, averaging close to 15 yards a catch. He’s been a receiver for most of his time but his role as a senior could be more that of a receiving tight end, and his size might well create the “tweener” label. His injury history probably makes being drafted a long shot without a massive 2016 season, but could intrigue as a free agent if that ends up the case.
Malik Foreman, Sr, CB, #13 – 5ft 10, 188 lbs
Playing the nickel position, Foreman really improved as the season progressed last year, making a good impact in the final third of 2015 in particular, which hopefully is encouraging to put up his best season as a senior in 2016. Foreman finished with a solid 9 pass breakups and 1 interception in coverage, as well as getting himself in the backfield late on with 4 TFLs all of which came in a three game stretch in November.
LaTroy Lewis, rSr, EDGE, #4 – 6ft 4, 260 lbs
The Vols’ pass rush depth continues with Lewis, who has been a backup and rotational defensive end throughout most of his time in college, with just a handful of starts, but most of those did come last year with five, mostly while rotating with Vereen. He hasn’t put up great numbers in his fairly limited snaps, including just 2 TFLs and 1 sack in 2015. An ok athlete, Lewis isn’t the most explosive, nor offering much punch and strength on contact, being comfortably controlled more often than not. He is arguably a little bit light looking for his frame so could perhaps add another 10 pounds which could help those issues a little (unless he has already this off-season!).
Kenny Bynum, rSr, LB, #51 – 6ft 1, 250 lbs
A short but heavy linebacker, Bynum has been a backup for the most part, with just 17 tackles and 1 pass breakup over his 3 seasons so far. He’ll need a significantly bigger impact to get on NFL radars, but even then he’s not a great athlete, struggling to move around the field in space, and at best would be a 2-down run defender.
JUNIORS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Ethan Wolf, Jr, TE, #82 – 6ft 5, 240 lbs
Pretty average in terms of both size and speed, but where Wolf stands out is with his excellent hands like that of a natural receiver. He needs that, as he doesn’t stand out athletically and doesn’t offer much as a blocker. There’s plenty of experience though, having made an impact right from his true freshman year and totalling 23 starts over his first two seasons. He finished last year with 23 receptions for 301 yards (13.1 per catch) and 2 touchdowns.
Evan Berry, Jr, S, #29 – 5ft 11, 208 lbs
Due to the veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, Eric’s younger brother hasn’t had a big role on defense yet, but has made a massive impact as one of the deadliest special teams returners in the country, that included taking 3 all the way for touchdowns last season and a fantastic average of 38.3 yards per kick return. Oh, and add in taking his first career interception back the full 100 yards for a pick six for good measure.
Justin Martin, Jr, CB, #8 – 6ft 1, 173 lbs
Tall, with long arms and very lanky, Martin could use some added strength and muscle. That said, he has no fear throwing his body around into tackles; love his effort in run support as an area that really stood out watching him last season. The junior college transfer flashes ability in coverage that included 5 breakups in 2015, but remains inconsistent and raw in that area right now.
Todd Kelly Jr., Jr, S, #6 – 6ft 0, 208 lbs
Kelly Jr has proven to be quite the ball hawk over his first couple seasons with 6 interceptions already. His overall measurables, speed and range look a bit average, but shows good football IQ including quick reactions and decision making, good technique in coverage in his backpedal and when he flips his hips in transition, and a solid all-round game when moving downhill into the box to go with the playmaking versus the pass.
Brett Kendrick, rJr, OT/OG, #63 – 6ft 5, 308 lbs
Good size and length, but Kendrick is limited by average quickness, not the best footwork and kick slide, and overall technique that lacks a bit of polish all round. He’s been playing at tackle, but perhaps those limitations could make moving inside a better opportunity for the next level. Before worrying about that though, he needs to complete a full season. After starting the first 5 games of 2015, elbow and knee injuries kept him out for most of the remaining games.
Jashon Robertson, Jr, C/OG, #73 – 6ft 3, 310 lbs
The former defensive tackle converted to the offensive line early on in his true freshman season and has since seen extensive playing time at both left and right guard. His technique is pretty impressive considering, looking very sturdy in pass protection, showing good strength and anchoring well. He’s another who has had some troubles with injury, in particular with an ankle issue last season. Lack of ideal length is a concern but otherwise looks a good player.
Josh Malone, Jr, WR, #3 – 6ft 2, 198 lbs
A nice athlete with ability to make yards after the catch, he’s at his best with the ball in his hands. The issue is getting to that point, with too many drops hurting his impact. He started 12 games last season, finishing with 31 receptions for 405 yards (13.1 per catch) and 2 touchdowns.
Josh Smith, rJr, WR, #25 – 6ft 1, 205 lbs
There’s not really any standout physical or athletic traits with Smith, but what you get is a solid, smart, reliable player, who chipped in with 23 catches for 307 yards (13.4 average) and 2 scores. He’s another where injuries have been a problem, including taking a medical redshirt in 2015 after requiring ankle surgery.
Coleman Thomas, Jr, OL, #55 – 6ft 5, 308 lbs
The positives are his length and movement, along with the versatility to potentially cover at any position along the line with experience at both center and outside at tackle. However, what instantly stands out with Thomas is a lack of strength, a poor anchor and he seems to practically end up on the turf every other play. He started all but one game at center last year, but thought he looked much better when starting at right tackle versus Georgia where he was able to put his athleticism to use on the edge.
Jeff George, rJr, WR, #19 – 6ft 6, 190 lbs
George joins the team for 2016 after transferring in from community college. With that height at 6ft 6 tall, he instantly becomes intriguing to see how he gets on at this level. In community college last season, he put up solid numbers with 49 receptions for 685 yards and 5 touchdowns.