KNOXVILLE – Of the 32 recruits who made up Tennessee’s 2014 recruiting class, a little more than half saw significant playing time last season.
Don’t be surprised if the proportion of the 2015 class that plays right away is even higher.
At Butch Jones’ signing day press conference, the Tennessee coach spoke of the challenges that come with “building a football program.” Jones is two seasons into his rebuild and doesn’t yet have nearly the depth he would prefer, especially on the offensive and defensive lines.
But he went a long way toward fixing those issues with this year’s signing class, which includes 11 linemen. Many of them, including offensive tackle Jack Jones (Oakland) and defensive end Kyle Phillips (Hillsboro), will likely have the opportunity to compete for significant playing time and, possibly, a starting job.
“That’s still one of the great selling points within our football program,” Butch Jones said Wednesday. “We’re still developing it, and still depth is an overall concern, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. But across the board, we’re still not where we need to be from a depth standpoint, so we want every individual in this recruiting class to have the mentality that they are coming in and they are competing for jobs right away, they’re competing for playing time, and then we will see how they develop.”
Though defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie, widely regarded as one of the top players in the 2015 class, could easily be starting by the opener, there is perhaps no surer bet to play early than Alvin Kamara. The running back, who played for Alabama before Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, is expected to form a potent one-two punch with Jalen Hurd, a Beech product who led the Vols in rushing yards a season ago.
That one-two punch, however, could end up being a one-two-three. At Tennessee’s signing day celebration in Knoxville on Wednesday night, wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni hinted that three-star running back John Kelly, out of Oak Park, Mich., could round out the trifecta.
Jones is fond of saying that SEC teams need far more than one featured back to compete because of the beating players at that position take over the course of a 12-game season. Kelly, who has impressive speed out of the backfield, could be the recipient of whatever carries are left after Hurd and Kamara are given their share.
“Right now, we only have three scholarship running backs,” Jones said. “We may look to add to that position, but (depth) is a concern.”
Despite an impressive trio of quarterbacks in this year’s recruiting class, it would take a massive upset or injury for a freshman to start Tennessee’s opener at LP Field against Bowling Green on Sept. 5. Blackman graduate Jauan Jennings, who enrolled early along with nine other members of the incoming freshman class, is a candidate to back up Josh Dobbs once the season gets underway.
Jones, though, seems to be in no hurry to make the decision about who will be behind Dobbs on the depth chart.
“If one individual out of the three separates themselves, and if they’re worthy of being named the No. 2 quarterback, we’ll be able to name them the No. 2 quarterback,” Jones said. “But you know, I think having (Boerne, Texas, product Quinten) Dormady here and having Jauan here will benefit them for spring football.”
Sheriron Jones, from Rancho Verde, Calif., rounds out the three quarterback newcomers — any of which will be a bad hit away from live game action in their first season with the news of Nathan Peterman’s transfer to Pittsburgh.
Another offensive weapon could be an immediate factor — wide receiver Preston Williams. He will try and help minimize the impact of the loss of Spring Hill native Vic Wharton, who has been granted a release from the program.
Despite undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament last fall, Williams apparently has his sights set on Week 1.
“He expects to be back ready for the first game,” Jones said. “And that’s kind of who Preston is. He believes that, and I think Preston’s capable of doing anything he puts his mind to.”
Reach Matt Slovin at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattSlovin.
BEST CHANCE TO PLAY
Which first-year Vols have the best chance to play right away? Matt Slovin’s ranking:
1. Alvin Kamara, RB, Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College
2. Kahlil McKenzie, DT, Clayton Valley (Calif.) High School
3. Kyle Phillips, DE, Hillsboro
4. Tommy Townsend, P, Boone (Fla.) High School
5. Drew Richmond, OT, Memphis (Tenn.) University School