Previews 2015: Tennessee Volunteers
Returning Offensive Starters: 10 (SE, FL, WR, TE, LT, LG, C, RG, QB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 7 (RDE, RDT, LDE, WLB, RCB, FS, SS)
Returning Specialists: 1 (PK)
Projected Overall Record: 9-3 (UGA, OU, UA)
Projected SEC Record: 6-2 (UGA, UA)
Projected SEC East Record: 5-1 (UGA)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Vg Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Vg Linebackers: Fr
Wide Receivers: Ex Defensive Backs: Vg
Offensive Line: Fr Special Teams: Vg
Between a heavy concentration of returning starters, improved recruiting and some of the best offensive skill talent in the conference, Tennessee is hoping it can finally lift itself out of the doldrums it’s been in for at least the last eight seasons. Roughly from the time Nick Saban arrived at Alabama, Tennessee has been irrelevant in the SEC. The 2015 Volunteer team is still not perfect; the offensive line, while experienced, wasn’t good in 2014, the defense has some holes up the middle and the book is still out on Butch Jones as both an x’s-and-o’s coach and a program leader. But things are looking up.
Jones is married to the spread system, which is a good fit for his current quarterback but might not be for the Tennessee running game. The Vols are getting plenty of accolades this fall for its offense, an interesting development given Tennessee was 90th in total offense in 2014, 89th in rushing and 70th in passing. It’s obviously a pick made based on potential rather than proven performance. The Volunteers are counting on a veteran receiver corps and improved offensive line being the difference this season.
Tennessee’s resurgence in 2014 could be traced to the point at which Joshua Dobbs started taking most of the snaps. Dobbs, who had struggled as a freshman with accuracy, completed 63.3% of his passes in 2015 for 1,206 yards despite playing less than half the season. Additionally, he became Tennessee’s second-leading rusher, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Dobbs is one of the most intelligent students at Tennessee, much less one of its smartest players, so if he has problem with any kind of learning curve this year, it will simply be a case of him hitting his natural talent ceiling. Dobbs’ dual-threat escapability will likely be on full display given the problems along the offensive line. No one is talking about it much, but UT is keeping its fingers crossed that Dobbs stays upright the entire year. True freshman Quinten Dormady will likely be the backup, and while he has potential, he is nowhere near ready to play on this level. The only other options are also true freshmen, dual-threat Sheriron Jones and walk-on Zac Jancek. Signee Jauan Jennings may start out at receiver. If Dobbs gets hurt, it’s likely game over for Tennessee.
The spread may be an ill fit for Jalen Hurd, who is a prototypical SEC power back. As a true freshman, Hurd rushed for 899 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry. He goes 6’3”, 240 pounds and is always falling forward. Whether or not the spread is the ideal option for him, the fact remains he’s a load, one of the most talented young backs in the conference and someone all UT opponents will have to be aware of at all times. What Tennessee doesn’t have is great depth. Alabama transfer Alvin Kamara gives Tennessee a perfect spread complement to the bruiser Hurd, but Tennessee won’t know just how capable Kamara is until he faces equal talent. Beyond those two, there is really nothing. Slot receiver Pig Howard carried 15 times in 2014 and will probably line up in the backfield on occasion, but if an injury befell Hurd or Kamara, it’s unlikely Howard would ever start at tailback. Signees Joe Young and John Kelly and sophomore walk-on Jayson Sparks round out the group, along with Ralph David Abernathy IV, who followed Butch Jones to UT from Cincinnati. Tennessee does not use a fullback.
As usual, Tennessee has a strong cadre of wide receivers. Leading the charge is Marquez North, who committed to Tennessee when the Vols were at their lowest and has stuck it out to become one of the more feared split ends in the SEC. North is a big, physical receiver with the ability to go vertical and plenty of speed to outrun the defense. Unfortunately, he has been a bit injury-prone in the past and hurt himself again early in fall camp. If North can get back to 100%, he gives Tennessee a strong presence that includes seniors Von Pearson and Pig Howard. Pearson has yet to live up to his prep reputation, but a healthy North will help him get open. Howard is the perfect slot receiver in a spread offense, and is also a threat to run the ball. Depth is good, with Jason Croom, Josh Malone and Josh Smith adding depth in the second line. Croom, who stands 6’5” and weighs almost 250 pounds, is a total mismatch for most defensive backs, but he needs to find consistency. Holdovers Cody Blanc and Jaye Rochell and signees Preston Williams, Jauan Jennings and Vincent Perry will add depth. The Vols also have one of the more capable receiving tight ends in the SEC, Ethan Wolf. Alex Ellis and Neiko Creamer add depth.
Although four starters were set to return in 2015, the offensive line was so bad in 2014 that having returning players simply meant the Volunteers had poor players with experience. Then, things got worse. Both starting left guard Marcus Jackson and backup Austin Sanders were knocked out of the lineup – Jackson for the entire year, Sanders for most of it – with various injuries. Now Tennessee is back to where it was two years ago, looking for bodies. Kyler Kerbyson will be the left tackle, Mack Crowder the center and Jashon Robertson the right guard, provided Tennessee doesn’t shuffle the lineup. Coleman Thomas came out of spring the new starter at right tackle. With Jackson and Sanders out of the mix at left gurad, either freshman Jack Jones will get the call, or the Vols will move Crowder to guard and start junior Dylan Wiseman in the middle. The real problem here is depth. In the spring, Kerbyson didn’t really have a backup at left tackle, and himself was the backup at right tackle. True freshmen and walk-ons were being counted upon to play key roles. Dontavius Blair, a JUCO transfer who redshirted in 2014, will probably end up behind Kerbyson. Brett Kendrick could challenge for the starting right tackle job or be a super-sub across the line. Charles Mosley and Thomas Edwards add depth to the mix. True freshman Drew Richmond will get every opportunity to win playing time. If Tennessee wants to be considered a contender in the SEC East, this unit will have to get better quickly, and then maintain their improvement over the course of the season.
The Volunteers will continue to run the 4-3 set Jones switched to a couple of years ago. Tennessee made great strides in pass defense in 2014, but the rush defense left much to be desired. Tennessee was weak up the middle and that won’t change this year. The offense will need to concentrate on outscoring opponents, because Tennessee figures to be vulnerable in short-yardage situations and especially against power teams.
The defensive ends, Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, developed into a strength last year for the Volunteers, but they’ll need help inside. Tennessee finished the season strong but was erratic against top competition, and the tackles were mostly to blame for that. Owen Williams and Danny O’Brien were ticketed to start following spring practice, but O’Brien must improve his consistency. Trevarris Saulsberry, Kendal Vickers and Shy Tuttle are the ones Tennessee will count upon to push the starters. But the biggest name to watch – literally and figuratively – will be true freshman Kahlil McKenzie, who goes 6’3” and nearly 350 pounds but is agile for his size. Tennessee didn’t have a problem generating a pass rush very often in 2014, but technique issues and focus caused the front-line run defense to be poor. The addition of McKenzie should help. Outside, Corey Vereen moves down from linebacker to back up Maggitt, while LaTroy Lewis and Kyle Phillips will battle at the other end position. Dimarya Mixon will add depth.
Tennessee left Jalen Reeves-Maybin at weakside linebacker in the spring rather than moving him into the middle to take A.J. Johnson’s old spot. Tennessee is betting that Kenny Bynum or true freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. can take the spot, but neither player tops the 225-pound mark. It’s a risk, given the Vols need a thumper in the middle. Jakob Johnson could be part of the solution, although he is listed currently at tight end. Dillon Bates led the battle at strongside linebacker coming out of spring. Chris Weatherd will be in the mix at all three positions, but he doesn’t wow much. Sophomore Cortez McDowell, who was backing up Reeves-Maybin in the spring, has a little more upside. The presence of Reeves-Maybin certainly helps, but the uncertainty surrounding the other two spots could be problematic.
For expectations to have been so low going into 2014, it was a welcome surprise to see Tennessee’s defense do so well against the pass. Tennessee ranked 22nd in pass defense and three of the starters from last year’s team return. The safeties are the strength of the unit, as Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil finally realized their potential. Depth took a bit of a hit at the opening of camp, as Rashaan Gaulden was lost for perhaps the entire season with a foot injury. Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry will be the backups out of the gate. At corner, Cameron Sutton returns as a starter on one side. Emmanuel Moseley or Malik Foreman figure to grab the other starting spot. But depth at corner was also hurt by the loss of Gaulden, and leaves a transfer, Justin Martin, as the likely fourth corner. Walk-on Devin Williams and signees Micah Abernathy and Stephen Griffin could figure in somehow. As long as injuries don’t hit hard, Tennessee should be OK here.
Kicker Aaron Medley has limited range, but he’s sharp from close range. If Medley continues to struggle at long range, kickoff specialist George Bullock or freshman walk-on Laszlo Toser could be called upon. At punter, Maryland transfer Nathan Renfro will compete with true freshman Tommy Townsend for the job. Evan Berry and Cameron Sutton form an effective kick-return team. Several players, including Sutton, will compete for punt return duties.