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What We've Learned Through the First Week of Tennessee's Preseason Camp

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Tennessee now has six practices under its belt after one week of fall camp. The Vols are set to kick off year two on September 1st against Ball State, and the last week has served as prep for the season-opener. In this article, we share what we have learned throughout the first week of practice.

Depth is Improved But Remains Unproven in a Lot of Spots

This is not the biggest surprise, obviously. It is year two for Josh Heupel, and he signed a solid recruiting class to join what he already had. However, coming into the preseason, there were still questions to be answered at certain positions, especially linebacker, defensive line, and defensive back, but the depth at these positions is much improved this fall, but still need guys to prove they are here to stay.

Along the defensive line, Omari Thomas is going to be a starter on the interior when week one rolls around. Elsewhere, Bryson Eason has stepped up and looks poised to play at least a rotational role for the Vols this fall, while Da'Jon Terry, LaTrell Bumphus, and Elijah Simmons will all factor into the rotation up front. Freshmen Jordan Phillips and Tyre West also continue to make strides.

At defensive back, Tennessee returned three starters in Jaylen McCollough, Trevon Flowers, and Warrell Burrell, but the additions of transfers Wesley Walker and Andre Turrentine were both welcomed. Returning guys like Tamarion McDonald and Brandon Turnage are both stepping up to create more depth at corner and star. Both have a chance to challenge for playing time as fall camp progresses.

At linebacker, Aaron Beasley and Jeremy Banks handled the middle of the defense together last season, and they played a lot of snaps because there was minimal depth around them. This fall, that depth has improved. Juwan Mitchell has returned and is healthy for the first time in a long time, and he looks more like the linebacker Tennessee thought they were getting from Texas. Elsewhere, Elijah Herring and Pak Garland are bringing further depth to this position.

Freshmen Flash

The Tennessee staff felt confident in many of their early evaluations last recruiting cycle, and even if star rankings didn't reflect that, it has become apparent on the practice field this week. Squirrel White, Kaleb Webb, Dylan Sampson, Elijah Herring, and James Pearce all look like they could find some sort of role for the Vols this fall. Sampson looks like a perfect match for what this offense calls for in its running backs, while Webb and White being here in the spring, certainly have them ahead of the learning curve this fall. Same for Herring. James Pearce looks as advertised early, and he has not shied away from hard coaching at this point. We don't expect Pearce to be a three-down player right away, and the Vols don't need him to be, but it is possible he ends up seeing opportunities on special teams and in passing situations.

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Josh Heupel's Culture is Real

Since day one on the job, Josh Heupel has emphasized changing the culture at Tennessee. Changing the culture is a pretty common coach-speak topic, but Heupel has his program living it. Since fall camp started, new leaders have emerged with an evident buy-in from players, new and old. During Sunday's practice, Tennessee had gospel music blaring across the practice field. A completely different vibe than a normal practice, but it was something the player's appeared to embrace.

Each day at practice, Heupel and assistants spend close to ten minutes connecting with players during stretches, providing insight and encouragement that is always welcomed by the players.

Another piece of evidence pointing towards this is how the players compete and take each piece of coaching. I can't count a single time this fall that I have noticed negative body language when a guy has received tough coaching. Joe Milton is a prime example as he could still be pouting about losing his starting quarterback role, but instead, he is making the best of his opportunity and being a leader for this team, all while getting better under the coaching of Joey Halzle.

Vols Still Need An RB3

Tennessee looked to add an additional running back for a couple of months, and with Len'Neth Whitehead sidelined for the season, it became imperative the Vols find one. Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright were both banged up at times last fall, and Wright has dealt with a nagging quad injury to start camp. To this point, Tennessee appears to have options in Lyn-J Dixon, Dylan Sampson and Justin Williams-Thomas. The question becomes how fast each guy can get up to speed. Dixon may have the highest ceiling of any running back in the room, but he has to want to learn this offense in a hurry and make a quick impression. Sampson and Williams-Thomas are both freshmen that have made strides, but they still have plenty to learn.

Tuesday's Scrimmage is Going to Carry A Lot of Weight

Again, this should come as no surprise, but Tuesday's closed scrimmage is going to go a long way in determining the direction several positions head. We heard multiple coaches talk about it last week, so it will be the most important topic of the upcoming week. The left tackle battle will be the focal point, but guys will continue to jockey for position in the secondary and get into the rotation at other spots. After Tuesday's scrimmage, the Vols are 23 days away from kick-off, so this scrimmage will go a long way in setting the depth chart. It will allow freshmen the opportunity to show what they can do, as well as newcomers such as Andre Turrentine and Wesley Walker.