Tennessee Football: 8 Players Who Will Emerge as Stars in 2014
The Tennessee Volunteers had a rough season, finishing 5-7 and failing to make a bowl for the third consecutive year.
Despite the rough sledding, at least Butch Jones and his first-year coaching staff developed a few playmakers along the way. With a star-studded recruiting class able to help in 2014, Jones will have more potential difference makers at his disposal.
Tennessee will be one of the youngest teams in the nation next year, but the Vols also should be much more talented all over the football field than they've been in recent seasons.
This year's recruiting haul is shaping up to be one of the best in school history, which is remarkable considering the current state of the program. With all the new faces—and a year in the weight room for some others—there are bound to be some new go-to players in the fold.
With the influx of talent and a slew of players with the ability to make instant impacts, UT will be improved in 2014, and all the new faces will enable the Vols to get over that hump and into the postseason.
Here are eight players who will emerge as stars for Jones and help propel UT to a bowl game.
Curt Maggitt, Outside Linebacker
Many have forgotten the type of disruptive ability junior outside linebacker Curt Maggitt possesses, simply because it's been so long since he has been healthy.
Phil Steele named him a freshman All-American in 2011 and Maggitt joined classmate AJ Johnson as the first true freshmen linebackers ever to start their first game as Vols.
As a sophomore in 2012, Maggitt was a force against North Carolina State with a sack and forced fumble recovered for a safety in the season opener before turf toe hobbled him the rest of the season. Then, against Missouri on Nov. 10, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
Rather than waste a season of eligibility at half speed, the 6'3", 239-pound outside linebacker redshirted and has two years to play remaining. He'll be more than 21 months removed from the surgery when he suits up at the start of 2014, so he should be back to full speed.
This spring is critical for Maggitt to get back into football-playing shape, but the ability is there to be a high-round draft selection. UT is expecting big things from him next season in leading a young front seven.
If Johnson returns, that duo will do big things in '14.
Jalen Hurd, Running Back
The Vols haven't signed a blue-chip running back since Lane Kiffin lured the nation's top-ranked runner and current Philadelphia Eagles tailback Bryce Brown to come to Knoxville in 2009.
But that changed in early March when Butch Jones convinced Hendersonville, Tenn., 5-star runner Jalen Hurd to commit to Tennessee over Alabama, Ohio State, Florida and other top programs in the nation.
Hurd set state rushing records as a junior at Beech High School, but he missed most of this year after surgery to repair a slight labrum tear suffered in the season opener against Station Camp and future UT teammate Josh Malone, according to USA Today's Maurice Patton.
He'll enroll this month and be ready to battle rising senior Marlin Lane for carries this spring. At 6'3", 230 pounds, Hurd is a bruising back who also possesses sprinter's speed, and he's the type of runner who will make an immediate impact.
In Jones' offense, Hurd will be a weapon. He can run between the tackles, outside and also split out and catch passes. He will be a big part of the offense in 2014.
Cameron Sutton, Cornerback
Cameron Sutton was easily Tennessee's brightest star on defense as a true freshman cornerback.
Listed as an "athlete" by most recruiting services, Sutton was recruited exclusively by the Vols as a defensive back, and they held off teams like Auburn and Florida for his signature. He was a starter nearly from Day 1 on campus and was praised for his footwork and athletic ability.
All Sutton did as a true freshman was start every game and not allow a single touchdown pass against him all season. The Jonesboro, Ga., native finished with 39 total tackles, a sack, two interceptions and led the team with nine passes defended.
After drawing rave reviews with a rookie season that is sure to draw him conference and national honors, Sutton is primed to be UT's most decorated defensive back since Eric Berry.
With more talent around him next year, teams will be forced to throw his way more. He'll make more plays and vie for All-SEC honors as a sophomore.
Marquez North, Wide Receiver
The true freshman pass-catcher led the Vols with 496 receiving yards this year and made the highlight play of the year for UT with an acrobatic catch to set up the game-winning field goal in an upset of South Carolina.
At 6'4", 215 pounds, Marquez North has the size and speed to be a dominant force in the SEC, but he struggled to be consistent this year battling nagging injuries, spotty quarterback play and with nobody else in the receiving corps to take pressure off him.
Help arrives next season in the form of 5-star receiver Josh Malone and 4-star junior college playmaker Lavon Pearson. Alton "Pig" Howard, Jason Croom and others return also in what is expected to be a much-improved receiving corps.
North is the quarter horse of the group, though, and he'll make the leap into UT's go-to player as a sophomore. Once he establishes a rapport with the quarterback who takes the reins, he's an NFL talent waiting to happen.
DaVonte Lambert, Defensive End
One of the biggest recruiting coups of Butch Jones' first full recruiting class was getting Georgia Military College defensive lineman DaVonte Lambert in the fold.
The 6'3", 275-pound lineman is the top-ranked junior college strong-side defensive end, according to 247Sports, and with UT's entire starting defensive line exhausting its eligibility this year, playing time is up for grabs.
Lambert possesses the size, strength and versatility to start in the SEC from Day 1. He will sign this month and earn one of those spots outright in the spring, whether it's on the outside or at defensive tackle.
There's a reason why UT had to beat out SEC rivals Auburn, Florida and Georgia for his services. If it hangs onto him for another couple of weeks until JUCOs can sign, he'll pay first-year dividends in a major way.
Blessed with excellent athleticism for his size, Lambert will give the Vols a pass-rushing presence on the front line they've lacked for some time. He will lead the team in quarterback pressures next year and make an immediate impact.
Josh Malone, Wide Receiver
One of the nation's top high school receivers gave Butch Jones some fantastic news Wednesday when in-state receiver Josh Malone committed to Tennessee over Clemson, Georgia and Florida State.
At 6'3", 190 pounds, Malone is the prototypical wide receiver, and he's silky smooth enough to come in and contribute immediately. He will be under heavy consideration to start opposite Marquez North.
Malone is a comparable talent to North and Ole Miss freshman standout Laquon Treadwell, and he has all the physical attributes to be a difference maker at a major position of need. Malone also is a very mature kid who went about the recruiting process with class in making his decision.
He will enroll this month and have a spring practice under his belt when his freshman season rolls around. While 247Sports lists Malone as a 4-star talent, he was newly awarded 5 stars on Rivals.com and is considered the nation's 20th-ranked prospect overall by that service.
Malone has the ability to come in and immediately catch 40-50 balls, but perhaps his biggest value to the team next year will be freeing up North to make a bigger impact. He will star at UT for many years to come.
Corey Vereen, Defensive End
A preseason knee injury sidelined freshman defensive end Corey Vereen until the Florida game, and though he never earned a job as an every-down lineman, the Winter Park, Fla., native was one of UT's best pass-rushers during his first season.
Vereen wound up with 13 total tackles, a sack and a pair of quarterback hurries, but technique inconsistency and difficulty controlling his emotions led to more sideline time than he would have liked.
Still, when he played, he showed flashes of immense ability.
Another year in the weight room, more size and a season's worth of maturity will do Vereen well, and he will be a starter next year for the Vols.
Lauded for his work ethic by UT coaches various times throughout the year, Vereen will lead the team in sacks next year, and he will emerge as a force everybody has to account for off the edge.
Rushing the passer is something the Vols have struggled with for a long time, but with the tandem of Vereen and DaVonte Lambert, 2014 looks like that trend could end.
Chris Weatherd, Outside Linebacker
Early in the recruiting process, UT took a commitment from an unknown junior college outside linebacker named Chris Weatherd.
Now with just weeks to go before JUCO signing day, he has offers from Auburn, Alabama, Texas A&M and others, and everybody is trying to steal him away from Tennessee.
That's because Weatherd is one of the most athletic linebackers in the nation, and he'll be expected to contribute immediately next season. He is rated the nation's top-ranked junior college outside linebacker by 247Sports.
UT is losing starting linebackers Dontavis Sapp and Brent Brewer, and though it will return Curt Maggitt, Weatherd is primed to battle Jalen Reeves-Maybin and incoming freshman Dillon Bates for that other outside spot.
With the Vols' lack of defensive speed this season, it's difficult to envision a defense that doesn't have Weatherd on it somewhere. His presence on the field will immediately make Tennessee a better team.