Over the coming weeks before Tennessee opens its fifth fall camp under Butch Jones on July 29, I will take a look at various coaches, players and positional groups that could make or break the Vols’ 2017 campaign.
It is, without question or hyperbole, the most critical season of Jones’ now 11 years as a head coach — his first time with a fifth year anywhere after stumbling a year ago in his first time in his fourth year at any stop as a head man.
In this blog, I’m going to go with my five breakout players for ‘17. Some are obvious — hello, Trey Smith, the most college-ready rookie I’ve seen since Eric Berry — and some are perhaps forgotten or true unknowns.
Smith. The nearly 6-foot-6 offensive lineman has the obvious physical tools, but it is his maturity and presence which rank well beyond his seven-months-on-campus reality. Smith will start from Day 1 at Tennessee, but he could do so at guard or right tackle.
Drew Richmond. Sticking to the offensive line, I’m going here with the former five-star prospect and everybody’s prep All-American. Richmond has seen the game slow down, benefited from working with Walt Wells — Wells essentially was Richmond’s private coach a year ago — and gained some maturity and mental toughness. From spring to his work this summer, Richmond is one of the guys whose name I hear in every conversation with folks on campus.
Josh Smith. He’s had moments of great importance for the Vols that have been muddled by a variety of nagging injuries. Now a fifth-year senior, the Knoxville native will emerge as arguably the most vital person in the passing game for Tennessee’s quarterbacks. Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway very well could lead in touchdowns and yards, but look for Smith to become the Vols’ go-to guy on third downs, short-yardage and key-game situations. In hindsight, one can argue Smith’s catch in the 2015 game against Georgia is what has since enabled Jones to be entering his fifth year.
Jonathan Kongbo. Up to nearly 276 healthy pounds and with single-digit body-fat readings, Kongbo is a physical specimen who needed the year to adjust to the speed and toughness — mental, physical — of big-time college football. Kongbo also has versatility along the defensive front. I’m not saying he’s going to come near Derek Barnett’s production of any of the previous three years, but Kongbo is going to be a crucial factor for the Vols’ defensive front and benefits from additional time under Bob Shoop plus the on- and off-field tutelage of both Brady Hoke and Steve Stripling. Close second here was Darrell Taylor, as was Daniel Bituli.
Nigel Warrior. As easy as Trey Smith, right? While Smith’s arrival in Knoxville reflects the most all-around ready rookie since that Berry game, Warrior’s athleticism and fearlessness most closely matches Berry’s traits. As a couple different UT folks have told me in recent weeks, safety is a spot ripe with competition and Warrior isn’t going anywhere. There’s a bit of a logjam with Todd Kelly Jr. and Micah Abernathy the most experienced in the backend at the position, but Warrior is forging his way and others are not intimidated.
KUDOS AND CONFUSION …
Props to Knoxville’s own Todd Kelly Jr. on his selection to the AFCA Pre-Season All State Good Works team list. He’s the Vols’ only representative on the squad, which was announced last weekend.
Many felt that Kelly Jr. would be on the Vols’ list of attendees on Monday for SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., including some of the selections who did make the trip.
Kelly is a good competitor on the field but a better person away from it.
In searching the preseason watch lists, and to be clear, Tennessee players still can earn their way to inclusion during the season, it stunned me that the Vols had no one considered worthy of the preseason tabs for either the Maxwell Award or the Bednarik Award.
Maybe there are enough unknowns to justify not seeing a Vols’ offensive player worthy of the Maxwell, though I’d take Jauan Jennings and John Kelly on my team every day of the week.
But surely omitting Darrin Kirkland Jr. was just that — a glaring omission — from the Bednarik? In 20 career games, 16 of them starts, the 6-foot-1, 238-pound Indianapolis native has tallied more than 100 total tackles and averaged more than half-a-tackle-for-loss in every career game. Plus, Kirkland is the quintessential student of the game. So maybe he’s not on there to begin the year; bet he is by its midseason list.
STARK CONTRAST …
It isn’t just that Nick Saban wins at levels never seen in modern college football, nor that he systematically reloads rather than rebuilds.
It’s that Saban hates losing — any game — more so than Alabama’s rabid fan base, or basically any fan base for that matter.
Alabama had a 2016 season that measured better than every team in the Football Bowls Subdivision save Clemson. Saban said it’s important his Tide not waste that failure.
It doesn’t mean Saban called his players failures or labeled the entire season a failure; he simply noted the Tide failed that game.
I’m not the first to point out that while Saban said that, Tennessee’s Butch Jones declared 2016 was not a disappointment for the Vols’ football program.
Fact is, Tennessee football is in sustained disappointment. It’s still the SEC’s No. 2 all-time program, but it is mired in its longest-ever SEC title drought and likewise has seen Jones extend the program’s longest run of years without an SEC Championship Game appearance. Nine seasons have been completed since the Vols’ narrow miss against LSU in the ‘07 title bout, a game that had the Vols won would have drastically altered the course of UT football history in the decade since that upset bid fell just short.
And last year, Tennessee failed to win an SEC East during a year in which it defeated both Florida and Georgia and saw four of its eventual six NFL Draft selections healthy for the entire 13-game season.
Everyone knows the pressure this year is squarely on Butch Jones. He has worked wonders at Tennessee relative to where the program was upon his arrival, and I’ve chronicled at length that Dave Hart’s hiring of Dr. Joe Scogin to turn around the Thornton Center has been Jones’ greatest asset.
Still, ticket sales and donations alike will be hard-pressed to match a year ago when so much anticipation centered on the Tennessee season.
Jones must show tangible progress: to fans, boosters, his bosses — and most importantly, his current players and future recruits. If Tennessee cannot win more than eight regular-season games, Jones may well have plateaued. Three-straight autumns of such wouldn’t be chance; it would reflect a pattern.
For the record, I think the Vols can win and should be expected to win nine or 10 games.
CARAVAN FOOD FOR THOUGHT …
The crowd Tennessee amassed at its final Big Orange Caravan stop in the TriCities was another powerful reminder that Northeast Tennessee remains heavily orange — Pantone 151 — more so than the Virginia Tech shade of orange and should not be ignored.
And the Nashville event sold out its 400 spots in short order, but that has to be judged with a bit of a different viewpoint. For years, Tennessee has conducted both a Caravan stop and its annual All Sports Picnic in the MidState. Having covered roughly the previous half-dozen Picnics, the crowd there always rests in the 1,000-1,200 range.
It is by no means John Currie’s fault that that opportunity this year was blown; likewise it was not the fault of the alumni board, either. The ball wasn’t dropped in previous transitions by the likes of Tiffany Carpenter, Bud Ford, John Painter, Jimmy Stanton or Jason Yellin, but this time around it was dropped. Kudos to Currie & Co., folks like Tom Satkowiak and Jimmy Delaney, for scrambling together to get the BOC booked and executed.
Still, knowing the MidState usually draws around 1,500 folks between the two annual events, it is clear this year a good thousand Vols fans in the MidState got short-changed. Think these things don’t matter? Look at the season ticket base for UT fans before and after the Titans’ arrival. The Vols can’t afford too many MidState missteps.
WRAPPING UP THAT ETSU BASEBALL HIRE …
Some in the TriCities suggest that ETSU went the route it did because the school has, effectively, sacrifice-bunted on trying to recruit with considerable success in the South.
Certainly, Joe Pennucci has a strong track record from his time at Stony Brook, where he served as recruiting coordinator.
ETSU had a baseball recruiting budget of less than $5,000 for its previous staff, and that figure has not been slated for much change, per sources with knowledge of the situation.
Additionally, ETSU waited too long to land Texas Rangers’ roving pitching instruction and East Tennessee native Danny Clark after it discussed six-figure salary numbers and likewise couldn’t get a deal done with Ash Lawson of the New York Mets. Similarly, Memphis recruiting coordinator Clay Greene — as respected as any college baseball coach in the Volunteer State not named Tim Corbin — was a former ETSU assistant whose Bucs’ squads set several standards of hitting excellence, but Greene never got much in the way of consideration. One high school coach whose squad went to Spring Fling in May told me, “That job needs to go to Clay Greene. He’ll get it done.”