Revamped Vols aim for elusive SEC East title

Aug 15, 2017 - 8:05 PM Butch Jones is known for his somewhat unorthodox outlook toward the way he governs his football team, including the assertion that his Tennessee program is adept at producing players with "five-star hearts" and that they are "champions of life."

Tennessee is talented once again -- the Vols are 24th in the preseason coaches' poll -- but the notion around Knoxville is that life titles won't cut it much longer. It might be time for the Vols to finally produce a championship of the SEC East variety.

The 49-year-old Jones will have to accomplish that feat -- one that's eluded Tennessee since 2007 when Erik Ainge and Arian Foster manned the offense -- with a roster that boasts as much skill and firepower as it does question marks.

The Volunteers will have a starkly different look from its past two squads that each finished 9-4.

Off to test their mettle in the NFL are a slew of leaders that leave enormous cleats to fill, including quarterback Josh Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara, defensive end Derek Barnett and cornerback Cam Sutton.

Those stepping in will do so under the tutelage of a revamped coaching staff.

Larry Scott, who takes over at offensive coordinator for Mike DeBord, and new quarterbacks coach Mike Canales are tasked with replacing Dobbs, whose 7,138 career yards and 53 touchdowns made him the highest-drafted Tennessee quarterback since Peyton Manning.

Junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano impressed through a couple of weeks of camp, with Dormady drawing comparisons to Philip Rivers, a former Canales disciple. That said, Jones hasn't set a timetable for announcing a starter and hasn't ruled out going with a two-quarterback system.

Whoever gets the nod is going to be tested immediately.

A treacherous opening month awaits Tennessee with trips to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech and a home tilt against Florida within the first 13 days of the season. The Volunteers close out September with a visit to a Georgia team that eagerly awaits a chance to exact revenge on the Vols for last year's Hail Mary thriller.

The Vols' squad from last year ended up suffering a lot of injuries, which, in turn, provided plenty of young players the chance to gain valuable game experience. And while the Tennessee roster might be deep, getting the parts to come together in 2017 won't be easy.

"We're nowhere near where we need to be, in terms of being ready to play a football game," said Jones, who is 30-21 in four seasons at Tennessee.

"Every practice has to count; every rep will be valuable. I thought where our football team was at this point and time, we still need to focus on the fundamentals -- the execution and being able to focus."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: LB Darrin Kirkland Jr. -- The Tennessee defense is deep with experienced upperclassmen, but the unit is in search of a leader. Now that he's fully recovered from an ankle injury that affected him throughout most of the 2016 season, Kirkland is poised to take charge of the Vols, on and off the field. The junior has 111 tackles in 21 career games, including 11.5 tackles for a loss.

BREAKOUT STAR: RB John Kelly -- The Volunteers entered 2016 with two horses in the backfield in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. But it was John Kelly who led all Tennessee running backs with 630 yards, to go along with five TDs. Kelly made the most of Hurd's implosion and subsequent transfer, while Kamara was derailed by injuries. Kelly rushed for 515 yards in the final six games and his 6.43 yards per carry ranked ninth in the SEC. Tennessee will lean heavily on Kelly, who will get an opportunity to play a full season as the starter. "John Kelly is an individual who waited for his opportunity in our program, and when his opportunity came, obviously he made the most of it," coach Butch Jones said.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: RG Trey Smith -- Trey Smith is earning the hype that made him a five-star recruit and No. 13 overall prospect in the 2017 class. The 6-6, 320-pound freshman is making a case for playing time along an offensive line that returns four starters. As impressive as Smith has been, coach Butch Jones is not going to rush the first-year player. "Trey's settled in at guard, and I think we all have to be careful," Jones said. "He's never played one down of college football. Even us as coaches, we have to step back. He's still a true freshman, and make sure that we don't put too many expectations on him early."

--CB Shaq Wiggins is a potential impact newcomer. The Louisville graduate transfer intercepted four passes and broke up another 14 during 21 games in a Cardinals uniform. He provides versatility and depth to a Volunteers secondary that is looking to improve upon the 230.7 passing yards per game that the unit yielded in 2016.

--OT K'Rojhn Calbert is the latest to suffer from an injury bug that has plagued the offensive line. He joins RT Chance Hall with season-ending knee injuries. Other tackles nursing ailments include Marcus Tatum (foot) and Brett Kendrick (undisclosed).

--Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke will make his SEC debut this year as Tennessee's associate head coach and defensive line coach. Hoke arrives after a one-year stint as Oregon's defensive coordinator, where he wasn't retained after Willie Taggart took over for Mark Helfrich.

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