KNOXVILLE — It's almost spring football time for Tennessee, and the Times Free Press continues its weeklong preview of the Volunteers' first practices under coach Butch Jones with a look today at five under-the-radar players to watch.
Whether it's a redshirt freshman primed to make his first contributions or an upperclassman looking to make his first waves after a quiet career, these are players who could -- and in some cases, they must -- step into open spots on the depth chart.
LaTroy Lewis: Though perhaps one of the more unheralded prospects in Tennessee's 2012 signing class, Lewis was one of only three freshmen who broke into the Vols' two-deep depth chart last August shortly before tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in a noncontact injury. The 6-foot-4, 238-pound Akron native played outside linebacker then, and he might stay there even as Tennessee moves back to a 4-3 defense. Lewis missed most of senior season in high school with a broken foot, so spring practice will be important for him to shake off some of the rust he's built up the past two seasons.
Kenny Bynum: With Curt Maggitt, who's recovering from a torn ACL suffered in November, likely very limited this spring, Tennessee will be looking for depth at linebacker behind A.J. Johnson. The 6-foot-1, 246-pound Bynum bulked up and impressed the Vols' previous regime in preseason practice before tearing a meniscus and missing the season. In an unusual twist, Bynum was a longtime verbal commitment to Jones at Cincinnati before Tennessee swooped in shortly before signing day and got him two weeks later.
Jason Croom: Another redshirt freshman who missed most or all of last season with an injury, Croom will be back at receiver after undergoing shoulder surgery and beginning a move to tight end under Tennessee's last staff. At 6-foot-5 and 232 pounds with good athletic ability, Croom is a big target, and he'll get plenty of reps this spring as the Vols try to reload at receiver. Croom and Drae Bowles, a steady 6-foot, 202-pound redshirt freshman with good hands and the intangibles that made him the first overall pick in the team's player-led draft for the "VOLympics" earlier this offseason, both bear watching at wideout this spring.
Naz Oliver: The only upperclassman on this list, Oliver is a fifth-year senior who's made it through multiple position switches and season-ending knee and wrist injuries and finally made his debut in last season's finale against Kentucky. The 5-10, 179-pounder played well in the chance he finally received after Derek Dooley was dismissed as Tennessee's coach. With the Vols' cornerback options limited behind presumed starter Justin Coleman, Oliver, along with rising sophomore Daniel Gray and former walk-on Jaron Toney, should receive plenty of chances to impress Tennessee's new coaches.
Justin King: The versatile rising sophomore could play as many as four different positions on the field, but he'll start this spring at tight end, where Tennessee is down three players from last spring. The 6-2, 225-pounder from Dunwoody, Ga., began his career at linebacker, switched to fullback and featured as a wildcat quarterback in a package that had success with the triple option in limited opportunities in 2012. King has the athletic ability to play tight end and could be a factor at a thin position -- if he's still playing there in mid-April, of course.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...