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Tennessee football: Josh Heupel touts depth, versatility after first day of spring practice

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With Hendon Hooker gone, there’s reason to believe Tennessee football won’t have the same year it had in 2022. Hooker, Darnell Wright, Jalin Hyatt, Jeremy Banks and Trevon Flowers were all key starters who are going to be difficult to replace.

However, while questions about the starting unit clouded the Vols as they began spring practice, questions about their depth have subsided. It’s very clear they are a deeper team than a year ago.

“The new guys, the young guys, we’ve added, length, athleticism, size on the offensive and defensive lines,” Josh Heupel said in his Monday media session. “Much deeper than we’ve been. Skill spots, same thing.”

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This is to be expected. Tennessee football added another full recruiting class, its best in the Heupel era, and added quite a few solid transfers. A top 10 recruiting class and top 25 transfer class should have this roster near full-strength.

Now, again, full-strength just means the ability to go two or three-deep at every position, which Heupel hasn’t been able to do since he first took the job. It doesn’t mean every position has key players who can be elite in the SEC.

What it does mean, though, is the Vols have more options to find players who fit that role. They also can be a little more open in practices because of that depth.

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“Year One, we were a shell of not just numbers, but athletes on the grass, that we are today,” Heupel said. “That allows you to increase the number of reps that you’re going get during the spring and it also creates a ton of competition and urgency, from the meeting rooms, to what you’re doing on the practice field.”

Most notably, the Vols’ weakest position, defensive back, added a lot of talent. UT added BYU Cougars transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally, and they also brought in five defensive backs in their 2023 recruiting class.

Flowers is a huge loss at safety, as he covered for so many of the deficiencies at cornerback. However, one loss who leaves a huge void combined with six pickups seems to be a pretty good ratio.

That number increases to seven when you add in the fact that Warren Burrell Jr. is healthy again too. Burrell suffered a season-ending injury last September. As a result, there should be a ton of competition and development at the position.

“You don’t just snap your fingers and be ready to play,” Heupel said of player development. “That’s part of having a deep roster, having competition, having an opportunity to get all these guys reps, really beneficial here as we go through spring ball.” 

Another example of an area where key guys were lost but the unit is deeper is offensive line. Wright and Jerome Carvin are both gone, and Wright is a first-round talent.

Nobody on this roster is as good as Wright, but Heupel added two transfers and five offensive linemen in the class. That makes for seven pickups on the roster, just like defensive back. Also, players from last year should develop.

A huge benefit for Tennessee football, if true, is what Heupel said about the versatility of the units. He has discussed cornerbacks and safeties being interchangeable in the past. The same seems true of the line. He said it’s like a jigsaw puzzle or riddle to find the right guys.

“We’re one day into that riddle, but I do like who they are, how they’ve worked, how they’ve responded,” he said of the line.

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