5 key position battles that will define Tennessee football’s preseason

One upside of the SEC football season’s delayed start is that it leaves plenty of time for preseason position battles.

Tennessee will begin preseason practice on Aug. 17, and its scheduled opener isn’t until Sept. 26. Organized team activities are allowed to continue before practice begins.

The Vols had just two practices before its spring session was shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those position battles now will reboot, with added intrigue, because all of Tennessee’s freshmen are enrolled.

Here are the five most interesting position battles.

Inside linebacker alongside Henry To’o To’o

Expect to see inside linebacker Jeremy Banks back on the roster during the preseason. Tennessee dismissed Banks from the program last fall following multiple off-the-field incidents, but he never transferred and instead worked toward reinstatement.

Banks will bring needed depth at inside linebacker, where the Vols have no clear answer to replace departed Daniel Bituli alongside returning starter Henry To’o To’o.

Banks, until he was dismissed, was a backup who had showed progress after converting from running back.

J.J. Peterson, the crown jewel of coach Jeremy Pruitt’s 2018 recruiting class, has offered little production. Maybe he’ll finally shine when given a bigger opportunity.

Quavaris Crouch gained experience at outside and inside linebacker as a freshman. He’s returning from offseason shoulder surgery.

Those returners will be joined by freshmen Bryson Eason and Martavius French in what projects as a five-man competition to be To’o To’o’s cohort. Bituli’s performance helped power Tennessee to a six-game winning streak to close last season, and the Vols cannot afford for the production at this spot to plummet.

Quarterback

Jarrett Guarantano is the clear-cut favorite. The 25-game career starter entered the offseason as the first-string quarterback, and the limited spring session only strengthened his grasp on the job.

Now, though, four-star freshman Harrison Bailey has 25 practices weeks to prove himself, following a few weeks of team activities that allowed him to settle in.

Even if Bailey cannot unseat Guarantano – the fifth-year senior probably will remain Tennessee’s starter – this extended preseason gives him a good chance to at least surpass Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout for the backup job.

Considering Guarantano’s inconsistent performance throughout his career and the number of hits he often endures, the backup competition should not be overlooked.

Wide receiver

Guarantano should enjoy working behind the most talented offensive line that Tennessee has assembled during his career. What is unclear is whether the Vols’ quarterback will have enough capable receivers to target.

Returning starter Josh Palmer is a proven deep threat, but there is no heir apparent to the departed Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway.

Ramel Keyton flashed potential as a freshman, including during the Gator Bowl while Jennings served a first-half suspension. He is probably the most likely candidate to join Palmer in the starting lineup.

Freshmen speedsters Jimmy Calloway and Jalin Hyatt should challenge for immediate playing time.

Graduate transfer Velus Jones Jr. will help Tennessee on kickoff returns, but he’s more of a wild card as a receiver. Other wild cards include fifth-year senior Brandon Johnson and transfer Deangelo Gibbs, who played defensive back at Georgia. Johnson is a big target who tied for the team lead in receptions in 2017, but his playing time diminished throughout the Pruitt era.

Tight end

Tennessee must replace Dominick Wood-Anderson, its top pass-catching tight end, and its best blocking tight end, Austin Pope, is sidelined indefinitely after offseason back surgery.

Pope played regularly as a run blocker and in six-man pass protection, and his absence is no small thing.

Princeton Fant played wide receiver in high school. At Tennessee, he’s spent time at running back, inside linebacker and tight end. He played in eight games last season as a backup tight end and caught two passes. He should have the first crack as a pass-catching tight end.

Jacob Warren, Sean Brown, Jackson Lowe and converted linebacker Jordan Allen bring size. Tennessee needs at least one of them to emerge in Pope’s role as a dependable blocker. From this group, Lowe might offer the most upside as a pass catcher.

Safety

Nigel Warrior finished his Tennessee career playing the best football of his life. He’ll be missed in the back end of the Vols’ defense.

Jaylen McCollough showed promise as a freshman in six starts alongside Warrior, and he should retain a starting spot.

Trevon Flowers started three games during his first two seasons, but injuries cut short each season. Theo Jackson also has starting experience but has been unable to lock down the job. Freshmen Doneiko Slaughter and Keyshawn Lawrence should spice up the competition. Lawrence was Tennessee’s top-rated signee. He will start off at cornerback, but he played safety in high school.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake’s subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.

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