Tennessee Volunteers: Team Overview
Returning Offensive Starters: 5 (LT, C, RG, RT, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (RDT, LDT, MLB, SLB, RCB, SS)
Returning Specialists: 1 (PK/P)
Projected Overall Record: 3-9 (UA, AU, UF, UGA, UK, UM, USC, Ore, VU)
Projected SEC Record: 0-8 (UA, AU, UF, UGA, UK, UM, USC, VU)
Projected SEC East Record: 0-6 (UF, UGA, UK, UM, USC, VU)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Fr Linebackers: Fr
Wide Receivers: Fr Defensive Backs: Fr
Offensive Line: Ex Special Teams: Fr
The Derek Dooley era is over in Knoxville, but the aftereffects of his regime will continue to be felt for at least a couple of years. Tennessee comes into 2013 at a severe talent disadvantage to most of its rivals, and is also both changing its defensive scheme and rebuilding on offense. Were it not for the lucky accident of having the most talented offensive line in the conference, Tennessee would be a candidate to lose 10 or 11 games. As it is, the Volunteers will have to scratch to equal last year’s 5-7 mark, and will need at least two significant upsets to get bowl-eligible. Add to this the uncertainty of just how good new coach Butch Jones really is, and the Vols could be on their way to the SEC East cellar once again.
Despite having little returning talent at wide receiver – which might be the first time in Tennessee history someone has ever said those words – Jones decided to go with a three-wide base set that will incorporate elements of a passing spread. The offense, in theory, will resemble what he and his mentor Brian Kelly ran at Central Michigan, then Cincinnati, and what Kelly still runs at Notre Dame. Kelly and his staff will lean hard on an offensive line made up of four seniors and a junior almost certain to enter the NFL Draft this year, and hope for miracles.
Justin Worley has presumably been “the next big thing” for a couple of years now. It’s time for him to show it. In limited work his first two seasons, Worley has failed to impress. He has good athleticism and good arm strength, but has displayed questionable field vision and has been too tentative. There is no more time to wait on his development. Redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman is at the ready in case Worley can’t cut it, and both quarterbacks might play. Behind them are a pair of signees, Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson. With Tennessee moving more towards a fast-paced, almost no-huddle look, the Vols will need to identify a capable signal-caller quickly. This one might go deep into the season before being settled.
Tennessee has plenty of experience in the form of Raijon Neal and Martin Lane, but despite having a talented offensive line in 2012, neither player was a difference maker. Neal has enough speed to play the position, while Lane prefers to rely on a harder running style. Both need to improve dramatically in order to take pressure off the new quarterbacks. Sophomore Tom Smith and redshirt freshman Alden Hill are a bit behind those two, but both have a shot at playing time. Hill in particular looks to have promise. For the first time in eons, Tennessee has no fullback on the roster, and will rely on double tight ends when the situation calls for extra blocking.
Tennessee is known for being a wide receiver factory, but at the moment, the factory is in a state of layoff. The two most intriguing names are freshmen, redshirt Jason Croom and signee Marquez North. Croom was the best of the returning players in the spring, while North is going to play a ton unless he’s a colossal bust. The other starter is likely to be either Jacob Carter or converted running back Devrin Young, who is good in open space but is very unpolished. Depth practically doesn’t exist. Pig Howard, a special-teams demon without a real position, and sophomore Cody Blanc are the names most talked about here. Two other signees, Ryan Jenkins and Paul Harris, could get some time as well as Vincent Dallas, who began fall camp on defense and could play both ways. Of equal concern is tight end, where junior Brandon Downs is expected to start despite not having great hands. Little-used senior Joseph Ayres is his backup, but like Downs, is more of a blocking specialist. Sophomore Alex Ellis or JUCO signee Woody Quinn, who wasn’t highly regarded, could end up breaking into the playing rotation.
Aside from depth issues, there are no concerns here. Tackles Antonio Richardson and Ja’Wuan James are probably the best combo in the SEC East, perhaps the entire league, while center James Stone is solid and right guard Zach Fulton is equally competent. The only new starter, left guard Alex Bullard, is a senior with plenty of experience already. Provided all five stay healthy, Tennessee should be able to keep the heat off the new quarterback. Run blocking, though, did not live up to standards in 2012 and must be improved. Mack Crowder will back up Stone in the middle, while Marques Pair is the top reserve tackle. Kyler Kerbyson will play somewhere, probably guard, while Marcus Jackson is also in the mix. Tennessee is a couple of able bodies short at the moment on the second team.
Bigger than the graduation-induced changes on offense is the change in scheme from a 3-4 over/under back to a traditional 4-3 defense. While Tennessee’s linebackers and defensive ends probably appreciate the change, the best part of the defense – the interior tackles – look better-suited for a three-man line. Tennessee’s defense last year was deplorable. It wasn’t coached particularly well, but there were talent issues all over the depth chart and those have gotten worse, not better. Injuries have not been kind to Tennessee, either, with four starters currently either out or sidelined with significant issues. This could be another bad year.
Tennessee’s best player not on the offensive line is tackle Daniel McCullers. McCullers is practically a carbon copy of former Alabama lineman Terrence Cody in terms of girth, with an additional three inches of height tacked on. McCullers would be in his element as the nosetackle in a 3-4, but he’s being asked to switch to a tackle in a four-down line arrangement, which might not be the best scenario for him. Seniors Daniel Hood and Maurice Couch are fighting for the other job, and the loser of the battle will back up both positions. There is precious little depth outside of this trio. Trevaris Saulsberry is quite a bit behind in terms of polish and ability. Redshirt freshman Danny O’Brien is the only other player expected to see time. At end, Marlon Walls will get the call on one side, although he’s a bit oversized for a 4-3 end. Quickness will be an issue. Jacques Smith was penciled in as the other end after spring practice, but he might miss a game or two due to a hand injury. That left Jordan Williams to battle converted linebacker Cory Vereen for the job, but Vereen has a knee injury and could miss several weeks, if not more. Corey Miller will fill in along with freshman LaTroy Lewis.
A.J. Johnson is a fine middle linebacker, and could be a star if the move to a 4-3 pays off for him. Johnson is quick, strong and has immense physical ability, but needs more consistency. Unfortunately, injuries are affecting this position group as well. Curt Maggitt had developed into a solid SEC linebacker, but a knee injury will likely force him to miss a game or two and could hamper him throughout the year. Brent Brewer will likely start the first game in his stead, and will be the top backup at both outside positions. Senior Dontavis Sapp will get his first chance to start at weakside linebacker. Christian Harris will back up Johnson in the middle, while freshman Kenny Bynum and senior Greg King are in the mix at outside linebacker.
The secondary was a bad joke in 2012, and may not be any better in 2013. Cornerback Justin Coleman has never lived up to billing, but he’s the best of this bunch. JUCO transfer Riyahd Jones, who had few options in recruiting, was still expected to win the other cornerback job, but is now sidelined with a calf injury. With Jones out, true freshmen Malik Foreman, who is still learning the position, and Cameron Sutton will battle holdovers JaRon Toney and Geraldo Orta for the job. Vincent Dallas, who moved over from receiver, will battle here and at safety as well. With the depth issues the Vols have at receiver, moving Dallas to the secondary should speak volumes. Byron Moore will start at one of the safety positions, but like Coleman, needs to improve a lot. LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph will battle for the free safety position along with Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Max Arnold is also in the mix at safety.
Three players are fighting for two jobs. Michael Palardy is technically the returning starter at both punter and placekicker, but he might end up doing neither. Matt Darr is competing at punter, and if Palardy – a placekicker primarily – can improve his kicking accuracy, the coaches would probably like to keep from exposing him on punt coverage. Walk-on Derrick Brodus can do either job and might end up as the placekicker if Palardy continues to struggle. Kick returns will likely be the property of Devrin Young or one of a handful of freshmen. Young’s open-field abilities could come in useful there.
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