College football is almost a year-round game. Open dates in the schedule are not vacations. Winter workouts begin while fans are still debating bowl results. Year after year, the mission is the same – bigger, stronger, faster.
Winter improvement is evaluated during spring practice.
The offseason is not really off. Coaches can tell in early August whether players worked or played around in May, June and July. Did they maintain football conditioning? Are they wiser in the ways of their world? Did they deep-think football, study video and gain a better understanding of schemes and playbook?
Early depth charts are never set in concrete but major movement is rare unless dictated by injury. Ambitious Volunteers are aware and will make their big jumps between now and the start of preseason practice.
Example: Now is “better late than never” for linebacker Juwan Mitchell.
Juwan is a man of the world, a native of Newark, N.J., who led New Berlin, N.Y., Military Academy in tackles, helped Mater Dei High School to an undefeated season, signed with Rutgers but landed at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas.
He didn’t have to go that hard route. He was an academic qualifier.
He committed to Minnesota but signed with Texas. He started five games in 2019 and led the Longhorns in tackles in 2020.
Texas changed coaches. Mitchell chose the transfer portal. He attracted 30 offers. He picked Tennessee because it was obvious Tennessee really needed a linebacker. Henry To’o To’o and several others had gone missing.
Juwan made the starting lineup. He played in three games, had one solo tackle, seven assists and season-ending shoulder surgery. He was still in a no-hit yellow shirt for spring practice.
What Juwan Mitchell, 6-1 and 235, does this offseason may well determine who he will be in Tennessee eyes: nobody or a big guy who got a late start toward stardom.
Offseason opportunity? Tennessee’s poster person is Desmond Williams, transfer from East Central Community College in Decatur, Miss.
Secondary coach Willie Martinez says Desmond reminds him of ex-Vol Cameron Sutton. If he reminds the rest of us of Cam, that will be good enough to grab a cornerback job with the Volunteers.
Williams did not wrap one up during spring practice but he had dozens of opportunities to demonstrate skills. Tennessee went from low to almost no corners.
Martinez says Williams is a natural ball-hawk. He had 13 interceptions at his previous stop. He also returns punts.
“He is exciting when he has the ball in his hands. He is a really good player. The great thing about him is his athleticism. He can jump.”
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks says Williams is a true corner.
“Tremendous, tremendous ball skills – just a great athlete – he’s going to be a great asset for us.”
OK, there is a difference between junior college and the Southeastern Conference. We’ll know more after the fourth Saturday in September.
Somebody is going to be Tennessee’s tough-yardage running back. It could be Len’ Neth Whitehead or Justin Williams-Thomas. Who does what to improve during this offseason may answer that question.
Len’ Neth has a head start in experience. He was on the team last year but didn’t get much done because of injuries.
Justin was at East Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia, rushing for 1,896 yards and 14 touchdowns and building a 4.0 average in academics.
Len’ Neth is a couple of inches taller, 6-2, and a better pass-protector because he knows more about the job. Williams-Thomas has a mature, sculpted body, a combative football disposition and more speed. He was on the track team.
“Justin Williams-Thomas is a fierce competitor,” said Josh Heupel.
“Power and speed combination,” said Jerry Mack, coach of running backs. “Balance and big-play potential every time he touches the ball.”
Williams-Thomas, 6-0 and 210, appears to have the physicality to play immediately. He hung in there all spring. To contribute in September, he must improve his understanding of the overall scheme and especially his responsibilities in pass protection.
Remember Justin is a 4.0 student. How smart is that? He chose Tennessee over Auburn and 17 other Power 5 programs.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is email@example.com.