On Aug. 2, the Tennessee Volunteers will hit the practice field for the first time for fall camp.
But with the season opener against Montana just over a month away, some key positions are still up for grabs.
Will a newcomer impress coaches enough in fall camp to earn a starting position? Did off-season training boost an upperclassman's chances of starting?
All of that will be decided over the next month. But here's part two of a look at 10 position battles as UT heads into fall camp.
James Stone started UT's final five games at center last year by necessity and earned Freshman All-American honors. But Stone is left-handed and has an unorthodox snap that worried coaches. This offseason he worked on snapping right-handed. Still, Stone is more of a natural guard. Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard is the other option at center. Coaches wanted to get Bullard reps at center during spring practice but were forced to put Bullard at right tackle after starter Ja'Wuan James was diagnosed with mononucleosis. Entering fall camp, Stone and Bullard are considered among UT's top five or six linemen and coaches will have to decide early if Bullard can handle the center position, allowing Stone to slide over to guard.
Based largely on who starts at center, the left guard competition could be a three-person battle between true freshman Marcus Jackson, redshirt junior JerQuari Schofield and whomever doesn't start at center between Stone and Bullard. Jackson, an early enrollee, impressed coaches early in spring practice and was a part of the first team for much of it. Schofield started the first seven games last season, but fought injuries the rest of the way and hasn't solidified a starting role since.
This is the most important position on the offensive line because the left tackle protects a quarterback's blind side. Junior Dallas Thomas started all 13 games at the position last year and played well for a first-year starter. Still, Thomas struggled at times, especially in pass protection. He is the veteran of the entire unit, and has taken on a leadership role of the offensive linemen. But when fall camp begins he'll have a newcomer to contend with in freshman Antonio Richardson. Nicknamed "Tiny," Richardson physically looks like he belongs in the NFL already. While it would be a tall task to ask a true freshman to protect Tyler Bray, especially with a proven player like Thomas ahead of him, Richardson's talent will be hard to keep off the field going forward.
Coach Derek Dooley made it no secret he was disappointed in the running game throughout last season. Despite the lack of a consistent ground attack, Tauren Poole rushed for over 1,000 yards. While Poole, now a senior, isn't considered among the top returning backs in the league, his numbers last season ranked among the SEC's best. With UT's offensive line seemingly much improved from a year ago, the running game should have improved numbers as well. Sophomore Rajion Neal showed flashes last year — especially in the passing game — but needs to become more consistent. Freshmen Marlin Lane and Tom Smith also will compete for carries. Finding a No. 2 running back to complement Poole is one position coaches are hoping to solve in fall camp.
The Vols must replace both defensive ends from last season — Chris Walker and Gerald Williams. Jacques Smith, a sophomore with NFL-potential, is expected to start as one spot, despite breaking a bone in his foot the last week of spring practice. Junior Willie Bohannon was listed as the starter at the other spot in the post-spring depth chart. Sophomore Marlon Walls slid outside to end after working at defensive tackle earlier in the spring. He is bigger than both Smith and Bohannon and could provide more support in the run game. Another option coaches could explore is occasionally using All-SEC defensive tackle Malik Jackson at end to allow JUCO transfer Maurice Couch to see more playing time.
— Matt Dixon is a senior in journalism and electronic media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @MattDixon3.