Last Saturday, the Tennessee Volunteers hosted their annual spring scrimmage. The Orange and White Game is always a fun event for Vol fans, who get to see many young players in action for the first time. This year’s game was no different, as multiple talented Vols flashed talent on the field and showed the potential to have a big impact in 2016 and beyond.
The newcomer who made the biggest impact on Saturday was by far wide receiver Jeff George. The 6’6” 190 pound receiver joined the Vols for spring practice as an early enrollee, coming by way of Dodge City Community College.
While George looks to be a little on the thin side, he showed an outstanding ability to fight for and secure the football in traffic. Late in the first quarter, George scored a touchdown on a simple fade pattern on the goal line. George went up and over corner Darrell Miller and was able to win the contested jump ball.
Later on, in a one-on-one drill, George made a similar play. This time, it came against freshman corner Marquill Osbourne (another spring standout). George used his 6’6” frame to extend and catch the jump ball over Osbourne.
While George’s 6’6” frame and leaping ability gives him an obvious advantage in jump ball situations, he also showed a knack for catching the ball in traffic over the middle.
In the second quarter, he had a great catch on a pass slightly off target. George settled down in between two defenders on a curl route, took a hit from a defender, but held onto the ball anyways.
Late in the game, he was also able to secure the ball on a slant route, despite a defender on his back.
As a whole, George flashed plenty of talent and should be a valuable part of the Vols’ receiver rotation in 2016. His size and leaping ability should certainly make him a favorite target of Josh Dobbs in the red zone on jump balls.
George wasn’t the only wideout to have a big day. Sophomore Preston Williams concluded a fantastic spring practice with a few nice catches from the split end position.
Early in the game, Williams had a spectacular diving catch after beating starting corner Justin Martin down the sideline.
Later on, Williams beat Martin again on another deep fade route.
Williams was also awarded with the Harvey Robinson Award, given to the offensive player who shows the most improvement during spring practice. Williams’ improvement is a great sign for the Vols, who really need him to step up and become the deep ball threat this offense has been missing for some time. Williams’ great performance in the Orange and White game was just even more evidence of his great potential.
On the offensive side of the ball, not many players had a better showing in the Orange and White Game than running back John Kelly. The sophomore saw limited time as a freshman, getting carries in garbage time behind Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara.
Kelly had a big day on Saturday, running 15 times in the spring game for a total of 65 yards and one touchdown. He especially stood out on zone run plays where he was able to use his vision to find the hole and cut downfield. This really makes him a perfect fit for Butch Jones’ scheme. His vision and decisiveness in running north and south is exactly what you want from a back in a zone scheme.
Kelly may not see much playing time in 2016 if Hurd and Kamara stay healthy, but he is a more than capable option if he is forced into playing time. Kelly gives the Vols a legitimate option as the third back.
Seeing a star player like Jalen Reeves-Maybin go down with an injury is never a good thing. But Vols’ defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was able to find some positive in losing his team captain for the second half of spring ball: it opened up the door for some young linebackers to get extra playing time.
None of those young linebackers stood out more than sophomore Quart’e Sapp. Shoop was singing his praises by the end of spring ball, saying “You talk about improvement, [Sapp] may have improved as much as any player from Practice One to Practice 13 so far. . . And I feel like he’s a guy that, in a couple years, we’ll be talking about as an upper-level SEC player.”
Sapp didn’t disappoint in the Orange and White Game, flying all around the field and leading the team with 9 tackles.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Sapp is his athleticism. This, combined with his ability to diagnose plays, allowed him to make a number of tackles outside of the tackle box.
A great example of that came early in the second quarter. Sapp tracked running back Jayson Sparks on a swing route, and was able to easily run to the perimeter and make the tackle for a loss after he caught the ball.
Sapp also made a number of tackles in the box after diagnosing a run play, fighting off blocks, and meeting the running back at the point of attack.
Very few positions on the Vols’ roster appear to have as much depth as the defensive end spot. All-American candidate Derek Barnett returns, while last year’s starter Corey Vereen, one of the most underrated players on the roster, returns as well. LaTroy Lewis, now a senior, is a reliable end with starting experience. Kyle Phillips flashed talent in an injury plagued true freshman season, while Austin Smith has made the move to end after playing linebacker a year ago. Not to mention the number one junior college player in the nation, Jonathon Kongbo, who will join the team in the fall.
But with Barnett, Vereen, and Phillips all missing time in practice with injuries, and Kongbo not on campus yet, that depth was tested in the spring. While missing players is never good, this was a great opportunity for a young player to step up and make a positive impact on the coaching staff.
Redshirt freshman Darrell Taylor did just that. Taylor joined the team last fall as an undersized, but extremely athletic freshman in need of a redshirt year to get ready for SEC football. Now, Taylor is up to 230 pounds, and looks to be ready to see real playing time.
He flashed his talent early on, destroying right tackle Austin Sanders on a speed rush and sacking quarterback Quinten Dormady (Note: This sack was incorrectly credited to Colton Jumper in the official record book).
However, that may have not been Taylor’s best play of the day. Later in the first quarter, Taylor completely destroyed a Vols’ run play. Dormady was reading the unblocked Taylor to determine if he should give the ball to his back or keep it himself. Taylor stepped inside, cutting off Dormady’s running lane and forcing a handoff to running back Jayson Sparks on a sweep. Taylor followed the ball, changed courses, and beat Sparks to the edge. This was a fantastic play and a great example of Taylor’s athleticism.
Taylor’s great spring has likely led to his earning playing time in 2016. It will be hard for defensive line coach Steve Stripling to keep such an athletic pass rusher off the field.
Rashaan Gaulden has had an interesting journey during his time on Rocky Top. As a true freshman he was a special teams standout, and heading into 2015 he was all set to be the starting nickel back. That all changed two weeks before the season started when he fractured his foot in practice. After missing the entire 2015 season, Gaulden appears to have made a full recovery. He had a fantastic spring, and appears to be the front runner to start at one of the safety positions in the fall.
Gaulden looked to be one of the most athletic players on the field on Saturday. Despite being a little on the small side for a safety at 178 pounds, Gaulden does not shy away from contact at all. He’s an aggressive safety who is quick to arrive to the ball and packs a punch when he gets there.
One of his best plays came Saturday on an important fourth down play. With the offense facing a fourth and goal, the coaches called for Jalen Hurd to keep the ball on an inside zone play. Gaulden blitzed off the edge and had no trouble wrapping up Hurd, who outweighs him by over 60 pounds, and throwing him to the ground for a loss.
The Vols’ star cornerback, Cam Sutton, switched his jersey number to 7 last season in order to honor Gaulden while he sat out with an injury. During that time, I got used to seeing number 7 out there making plays all over the field. The Orange and White Game was no different, as I still saw number 7, now Gaulden, making plays all over the field. I even got the two confused at times, because Gaulden’s aggressive play style reminded me so much of Sutton. If Gaulden can even be half as good of a player as Sutton in 2016, the Vols are going to have an outstanding safety on their hands.
I would like to say congratulations to @ToddYoung73, the winner of our Twitter giveaway. Todd won a free copy of my new book, Fast and Furious: Butch Jones and the Tennessee Volunteers’ Offense.
If you missed out on this giveaway, then don’t worry; there will be more in the coming weeks.
You can learn more about the book and order your copy by visiting the Amazon page by clicking HERE.