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2014 Tennessee Volunteers: Team Overview
by Jess Nicholas
August 24, 2014
If win-loss records were determined by bravado and bull hockey, Tennessee’s Butch Jones would have a team in the national title game every year. Jones has done a good job selling the illusion of improvement, but the Vols had better hope he can continue to recruit well – because success in the present day isn’t coming. Tennessee might have the league’s worst offensive and defensive lines simultaneously, certainly a first for this program and maybe the first for any SEC program not named Vanderbilt. Aside from a few bright spots at receiver and an above-average linebacker corps, Tennessee doesn’t have much. Hitting .500 this season would be a major accomplishment.
Returning Offensive Starters: 4 (SE, WR, TE, QB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 5 (JLB, MLB, RCB, FS, SS)
Returning Specialists: 0
Projected Overall Record: 4-8 (UA, OM, UF, UGA, UM, USC, OU, VU)
Projected SEC Record: 1-7 (UA, OM, UF, UGA, UM, USC, VU)
Projected SEC West Record: 1-5 (UF, UGA, UM, USC, VU)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Pr
Running Backs: Fr Linebackers: Vg
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Fr
Offensive Line: Pr Special Teams: Fr
Jones has taken one of the tenets of lean manufacturing and applied it to football: Fail fast, fail cheap. He sped up the Vol offense, but all that did was give opponents more chances to run (and throw) the ball down Tennessee’s throat. Tennessee has always been a haven for wide receiver talent, and Jones is doubling down on history by putting UT in a full-time three wide, throw-it-to-death spread. It will be interesting to see whether the problems on the offensive line lead to an offensive shutdown.
Senior Justin Worley won the job from sophomore Joshua Dobbs in fall camp, and sophomore Nathan Peterman will wait his turn in the third slot. This gives Tennessee some of the best quarterback depth in the league, purely from a numbers standpoint, but everyone has to play better. Dobbs was effective last year only when running, but he is one of the smartest players in the nation and Jones’ staff is hoping that will translate eventually into football smarts as well. Worley was the better thrower in 2013 by a slim margin, but given the strength of the Tennessee offensive line in 2013, it’s hard to understand why the entire group looked so dismal. Worley may have won the starting job simply to keep Dobbs from getting beaten to death in what figures to be a worthless season anyway.
Marlin Lane averaged more than 5 yards per carry in 2013, but made virtually no impact. The reality is that neither Lane nor any other runner had or has the talent to be a true threat. Tennessee hopes that will change now that freshman Jalen Hurd is set to take the field. Hurd is a bigger, stronger runner than anyone the Vols have had in recent seasons. Scatback Devrin Young rounds out the top group, with signee Treyvon Paulk providing depth. Tennessee uses no fullback.
Tennessee has two superb starters at the top of this unit – Marquez North and Jason Croom – and not nearly enough in the supporting cast. Freshman Josh Malone figures to be the third starter, although JUCO feel-good story Von Pearson might have something to say about it. Neither Malone nor Pearson look to be ready enough to make a difference yet. Johnathon Johnson and Josh Smith round out the primary group. Pig Howard will be part of the rotation somehow, and could also get a few carries as a running back, if he can work his way back from taking a leave of absence from the team for seven months. Brendan Downs returns at tight end, but he was mediocre enough in 2013 that Ethan Wolf, a freshman, might displace him.
Tennessee coaches have put on a brave face when discussing the line, but the truth is, everyone is worried. Only one player – center Mack Crowder – really pushed for much playing time in 2013. Guard Marcus Jackson has the talent, but has been injury-prone in the past. Right guard Kyler Kerbyson is still getting used to not being a tackle. Still, these three look like a trio of Plymouth Rocks compared to the tackles, which are going to struggle. JUCO signee Dontavius Blair is in a put-up-or-shut-up spot. He’ll start on the left side, and will either figure it out or get replaced by a walk-on, Jacob Gilliam, who is at least consistent – something Blair struggled with in spring drills. Freshman Coleman Thomas will start on the right side. There is very little depth at all. Dylan Wiesman was backing up all three positions in the middle coming out of spring, with a pair of freshmen, Brett Kendrick and Austin Sanders, getting the most snaps otherwise. Senior Marques Pair is still around, but is fast approaching “bust” territory.
Tennessee will be using a hybridized form of a 4-3/5-2 defense – four down linemen, two linebackers and a Jack-type convertible end/linebacker – so at least the Vols will be interesting. Whatever alignment they use, the Volunteers can’t survive another season being ranked 100th in rushing defense and 109th in passing defense, second-worst in the conference in both categories.
There is no depth, questionable quality among potential starters, and an over-reliance on freshmen. All four starters are new, but weakside end Corey Vereen does have some breakout potential. The rest of the post-spring starters might not even be in the rotation by season’s end. Trevarris Saulsberry and Danny O’Brien were listed first at tackle, but neither is particularly explosive. JUCO signee Owen Williams will rotate between both positions, but he went through spring practice and what he showed then wasn’t particularly promising. Either Jordan Williams or one of a handful of freshmen will start at the other end slot. Tennessee wasn’t enthused by what they saw there from LaTroy Lewis. Derek Barnett, Joe Henderson and Dewayne Hendrix are all very likely to see playing time at defensive end, along with holdovers Kendal Vickers and Jaylen Miller, but no one from last year scares anyone. True freshmen Michael Sawyers and Charles Mosley have a shot to play in the middle.
Curt Maggitt gets the Jack role, but he figures to be his most effective when playing a traditional linebacker role next to A.J. Johnson. Johnson needs a strong senior season to improve his NFL Draft stock, and Maggitt could go early to the draft this year himself. The fact Tennessee has two pro-worthy players at this spot automatically makes the linebacker unit the strength of the team. But again, depth is an issue. Jalen Reeves-Maybin will get the other outside spot mostly because no one else is there, while Chris Weatherd, Kenny Bynum and Justin King will try to hold off freshman Dillon Bates for as long as possible. Jakob Johnson and Gavin Bryant are two other newcomers that could play early.
It’s hard to believe, but Tennessee might not look much different in the secondary personnel-wise this season. Cameron Sutton and Justin Coleman return as starters at cornerback, but Coleman had been displaced by freshman Emmanuel Moseley this spring. Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil return at safety. Again, that’s not a good thing. It remains to be seen how soon it takes signees Evan Berry and D’Andre Payne to get on the field, but it’s coming. Holdovers Malik Foreman, Devaun Swafford and Geraldo Orta add depth. This may be one of the least-feared secondaries in the league.
The starters may be new, but that’s somewhat misleading, given that punter Matt Darr and kicker Derrick Brodus have been starters before. Brodus is under fire from both George Bullock and signee Aaron Medley, and all three might end up settling this in live-fire conditions. Darr is likely the punter no matter what, although consistency is not the name of his game. Devrin Young is still the kick returner of choice, but Tennessee needs improvement in both returns and coverage.
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