KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee finally has the collection of playmakers Butch Jones has sought since taking over the program.
The key to challenging for a Southeastern Conference East Division title is whether the Volunteers can stay healthy enough to utilize all that talent.
In the first two weeks of training camp, Tennessee already has likely lost injured guard Marcus Jackson for the season. Wide receiver Marquez North injured his knee Wednesday and is expected to miss about a week. Numerous other players have missed practice time for a variety of nagging injuries, though Jones says eight to 10 of them could return Saturday.
"That's really just the process of going through training camp right now," Jones said. "This is where your toughness, this is where your team chemistry, this is where your resiliency is born."
If they avoid additional injuries, the Vols should deliver the big plays that were missing from this offense the last couple of years.
During Jones' previous two seasons on the job, Tennessee produced only 18 plays from scrimmage of 40-plus yards, the lowest total in the SEC. Ten of the SEC's 14 teams had at least 30 plays from scrimmage of 40-plus yards during that same stretch.
But Jones never has possessed this much talent. Tennessee's depth chart at the skill positons bears no resemblance to the offense that Jones inherited.
"It's night and day," Jones said.
The biggest reason for optimism is the return of quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who sparked the late-season surge last fall that helped Tennessee end a string of four straight losing seasons.
Tennessee had 30 gains from scrimmage of 25-plus yards last season. Sixty percent of them came in the six games in which Dobbs appeared. Dobbs' emergence helped Tennessee produce 55 plays from scrimmage of 20-plus yards last season, up from 46 in 2013.
Dobbs isn't Tennessee's only playmaker.
After rushing for 899 yards last season, sophomore Jalen Hurd returns and is joined in the backfield by junior-college transfer Alvin Kamara, a five-star recruit who began his college career at Alabama.
"The one individual who I think offensively is really, really starting to assert himself as a leader is Alvin Kamara," Jones said. "He's really kind of become the voice of the offense."
Kamara said he has lined up along with Hurd in the backfield in certain practice situations, giving Tennessee the opportunity to have both big-play threats on the field together. Kamara says "it's going to be scary" to have him, Hurd and Dobbs on the field at the same time.
"You've got Dobbs, he can run the ball and throw the ball," Kamara said. "(Opponents) got a taste of Jalen last year and what he can do, and (now) they're going to get a taste of what I can do. They're going to have to be honest. They're going to have to account for all three of us in the backfield, at the same time even."
Tennessee also is stronger on the edge. Tennessee returns all seven players who caught at least 20 passes or accumulated at least 200 yards receiving last fall.
If those guys stay healthy, the Vols should be more explosive.
"It's definitely great to have athletes out there, guys who are able to go up and make plays for you on the outside, you give them the ball in space (and) they're able to make a guy miss and extend plays, " Dobbs said. "From running backs to receivers, it's great to have that out there. It should be an exciting season this year."
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