Wednesday was a flurry of good and bad news from Tennessee head coach Butch Jones. He started off Wednesday’s weekly presser with Darrin Kirkland Jr. injury news — the junior had knee surgery to repair a meniscus injury earlier in the day, Jones said. Kirkland is officially out for Monday, but his injury timetable is still unknown.
“I give that young man a lot of credit … I know he was looking forward to being out on the football field Monday night,” Jones said.
Looking at the Vols’ first depth chart (more on that shortly) is concerning when you take away No. 34. With Kirkland out, many of us were already concerned at the Vols’ depth against the Yellow Jackets in new Mercedez-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. But, things got worse when Jones officially announced redshirt sophomore Drew Richmond was suspended for a violation of team rules. Richmond was listed as the team’s starting left tackle on Tennessee’s first depth chart.
“There isn’t anyone more disappointed than Drew,” Jones said. “But there’s standards and expectations … he’s working his craft and I know he’s looking forward to getting back out on the field.”
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however. Redshirt senior Josh Smith was thought to be out for Monday’s matchup with a sprained shoulder, but Jones said Smith would practice on Wednesday and was “available” for the Vols in Atlanta. The receiving rotation is inexperienced enough as it is, and Smith’s presence on the field alone gives the Tennessee offense a huge experience boost.
Depth Chart Notes
Let’s look at Tennessee’s released depth chart and break things down where necessary:
QB: Quinten Dormady OR Jarrett Guarantano
No surprises here. Butch Jones has said multiple times (today included) that both Dormady and Guarantano would play in the season opener, and that certainly won’t change before Monday. The Vols have a guy they know will start the game, but they aren’t saying.
RB: John Kelly, Carlin Fils-Aime
Kelly ended up leading the Vols in rushing in 2016 and is the clear No. 1 option, but many fans will be surprised highly-touted freshman Ty Chandler isn’t here. I’m willing to bet that Chandler sees a fair amount of carries, but the Vols will let the experienced FIls-Aime get more carries as they work Chandler in.
WR: Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway
“The Dawg” Jauan Jennings is back as the Vols’ No. 1 receiver. Callaway showed explosive ability from the punt returner position last season, and we should see those flashes in the passing game. We know Jones and new offensive coordinator Larry Scott will rotate plenty of players in.
WR: Josh Palmer OR Brandon Johnson
Josh Palmer has arguably been the most impressive freshman outside of Trey Smith to make a name in the Vols’ offseason. Palmer’s 6-foot-2 frame isn’t monstrous, but the freshman’s hands have been pretty impressive in camp. Sophomore Brandon Johnson will see plenty of rotation snaps.
WR: Latrell Williams OR Tyler Byrd OR Josh Smith
My guess here is that Smith would be the listed starter if he was fully healthy, but since the depth chart was released in prep for Monday’s game, all three will see roughly the same amount of snaps (assuming Smith can play). Williams is incredibly fast — Byrd is incredibly shifty. This group looks really strong.
LT: Drew Richmond, Nathan Niehaus LG: Jack Jones OR Venzell Boulware
Again, while this is the listed depth chart, Butch Jones said Wednesday that Brett Kendrick will start at one tackle and Marcus Tatum at the other. I’d bet we see the versatile Kendrick in Richmond’s spot. Boulware’s development and push for the full time guard position is one to watch.
Center: Jashon Robertson, Coleman Thomas RG: Trey Smith, Ryan Johnson RT: Brett Kendrick, Marcus Tatum
Many Vol fans will rejoice seeing Thomas out of the starting group, but he’s at his best at center. That speaks volumes to Jashon Robertson’s talent to start pretty much anywhere on the interior line. Trey Smith is going to be good folks.
LE: Jonathan Kongbo, Kyle Phillips RE: Darrell Taylor, Deondre Johnson
Kongbo’s start serves no surprises. Right end might be my favorite position to keep up with this season. Taylor and Johnson were both sought-after recruits, and while Taylor didn’t see much playing time behind Derek Barnett, his smaller, quicker frame will make for an interesting defensive dynamic. Freshman Deondre Johnson has received a lot of praise from defensive coaches and could be a gem for the Vols.
DT: Kendal Vickers, Shy Tuttle DT: Kahlil McKenzie, Alexis Johnson
Butch Jones said today that Shy Tuttle could be used Monday, but it probably won’t be too often. Tuttle has been a monster when healthy, and the Vols need him to be fully healthy for SEC play. His recovery time has been impressive, but Tennessee needs to be careful.
WLB: Cortez McDowell, Elliot Berry, Quart’e Sapp
This group has a long way to go. McDowell and Berry saw plenty of playing time in 2016, but it wasn’t exactly impressive. Berry has shown good flashes, but needs consistency.
MLB: Colton Jumper, Dillon Bates
*squints* Is that… *rubs eyes* well howdy, a Dillon Bates sighting! Bates seemingly fell off the end of the world despite some special team appearances in the past few seasons. Now, with Kirkland out, we’lll get to see if Bates has developed enough to see the field more.
SAM: Austin Smith, Daniel Bituli
There’s a lot to like about these two at strong-side linebacker. Jones has mentioned Smith in good context multiple times in the offseason, while Bituli has a world of talent and is only a matter of time away from seeing a ton of minutes.
CB: Justin Martin, Shawn Shamburger, D.J. Henderson
No surprise on Martin here, who’s emerged as more of a vocal leader for the defense. Shamburger has looked good early for the Vols. Many feel he has a big future in Knoxville.
CB: Emmanuel Moseley, Marquill Osborne, Shaq Wiggins
What’s happened to Shaq Wiggins? The Louisville transfer was supposed to come in and provide immediate relief to Tennessee’s secondary, but finds him buried on the depth chart. It could be a case of defensive adjustment to Bob Shoop’s scheme, but be wary if he doesn’t see the field on Monday.
Strong Safety: Nigel Warrior, Evan Berry Free Safety: Todd Kelly Jr. OR Micah Abernathy
Warrior has been every bit of impressive as his pre-Vol hype would have led you to believe. He made some freshman mistakes last season, but he’s primed for a breakout year in 2017.
Nickel: Rashaan Gaulden, Baylen Buchanan
Gaulden might play to be the Vols’ best man-on defensive back this season, and he’s got an encouraging sophomore in Baylen Buchanan behind him.
Kicker: Aaron Medley OR Brett Cimaglia
Butch Jones said on Monday that the Vols could kick Medley and Cimaglia at different distances, a huge change in direction from Jones’ belief in Medley last season. It’s too soon to say whether that’s more of an indication on Medley or Cimaglia, but I imagine the Vols are worried about Medley’s accuracy from deep (he’s basically money from under 40 yards).
Punter: Trevor Daniel, Punt Returner: Marquez Callaway
Like I mentioned earlier, Callaway’s appearances (and touchdown!) at punt returner last year opened the door for him to take over this season, and he’s more than impressed.
Kick Returners: Evan Berry, Micah Abernathy, Ty Chandler
The two starters aren’t a surprise, but hey, there’s Ty Chandler. Chandler’s explosive ability will be well-documented should he every field some kicks. A healthy Evan Berry makes the Vols’ special teams so, so deadly.