Tennessee Football: Grading the Vols' 2013 Season
This season was disappointing by the historically established lofty standards of Tennessee's football program, but that doesn't mean 2013's 5-7 mark was unexpected.
Virtually all of the Volunteers' offensive production from last year left for the NFL. They still returned the same dearth of talent on a historically bad defense. And Butch Jones was implementing a new offensive and defensive scheme in his first season as head coach.
Yes, 2013 was predictably doomed from the start. Unfortunately for the Vols, losing seasons have come in abundance lately.
But that doesn't change the fact that UT had the opportunity to beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky to make it to the program's first bowl game since 2010. The Vols didn't, and that is unacceptable.
There are various reasons why Tennessee couldn't close the deal. So let's examine a position-by-position report card to dissect where things went wrong and what UT must do moving forward.
In order to have success in the SEC, a team has to have competent quarterback play.
More often than not, it was atrocious. The Vols played three signal-callers—junior Justin Worley, redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and true freshman Joshua Dobbs—and none of them seized control of the job.
Just as Worley was improving, he was lost for the season. He gave way to Dobbs, who showed flashes but simply wasn't ready. Peterman's only half of action was disastrous against Florida.
The whole season—save a couple of moments—unfolded like a Greek tragedy in orange.
Tennessee finished 13th out of 14 SEC teams with 164.9 passing yards per game, ahead of only Arkansas. The Vols were dead least in the league in pass efficiency rating. Those numbers are poor by anybody's standards.
For that to improve in 2014, UT needs a clear-cut starting quarterback to emerge in spring practice and to leave no doubt that he's the man heading into the season. The Vols must have that person emerge as a leader.
If those things don't happen, next year is going to be another bowl-less season. This year, the position was the weakest link.
The duo of Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane entered this season with little fanfare, but it wound up having a productive year for a Tennessee team that ran the ball better than it has in nine seasons.
Neal, a senior from Fayetteville, Ga., dashed for a career-best 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns—good enough for sixth in a league full of top-shelf running backs. Only stars like Tre Mason, Jeremy Hill, TJ Yeldon, Mike Davis and Todd Gurley were ahead of him.
With his combination of size and speed, Neal is expected to play on the next level, but he never really lived up to expectations at UT until this year under Robert Gillespie.
Lane has another season remaining in orange, but he was an excellent between-the-tackles runner for the Vols this year, averaging 5.3 yards per carry and gaining 534 yards with four touchdowns. He was able to get plenty of tough yards, and that will serve him well as he vies for carries on next year's team.
It's going to be difficult to replicate this production with a new offensive line in 2014, but if UT can get close to the same numbers next year, it will be a good sign. The running game was pretty much the only weapon UT's offense had this year.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
With so much production gone off 2012's roster, wide receiver was always going to be a major question mark for the Vols.
Though UT was able to identify a couple of playmakers for the future in freshman Marquez North and Pig Howard, there was simply no consistency.
Because of their improvement through the course of the season, they'll get a bit better grade than the quarterbacks, but WRs coach Zach Azzanni has plenty of work cut out for him moving forward.
Not only do North and Howard have to take the next step, Azzanni has to be able to help Josh Smith get over the mental hurdles of his catching woes. Also, a player with Jason Croom's size and talent has to run better routes.
Azzanni will have some brand-new toys to play with in 2014, chiefly blue-chip in-state star Josh Malone and 4-star junior college receiver Lavon Pearson. A full offseason will benefit a group that was very young this year, and UT will be much improved at the pass-catching positions next year.
Junior tight end Brendan Downs had a forgettable season, both catching and blocking. Behind him, true freshman AJ Branisel showed some flashes before getting hurt.
The Vols have two highly regarded tight ends committed in the '14 class in Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolfe. Playing time is certainly up for grabs at that position as UT looks for reliable pass-catchers all over the field.
Perhaps there was no way for a group with such high expectations to meet them, but it certainly seems like the offensive line fell short once again.
Though the numbers don't necessarily prove it out—especially considering UT had its highest rushing yards total since 2004, according to UTSports.com—it wasn't a great year in the trenches.
This is a group that was supposed to be the staple of the team. New offensive line coach Don Mahoney inherited a line that has at least four pro prospects in Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, Ja'Wuan James, Zach Fulton and James Stone, and there were simply times this year when they got dominated.
With games on the line, UT never rode its line to plow for tough yardage against good teams. There were far too many costly penalties at key moments, and the pass blocking was below par.
Starting from scratch next season is probably going to make a lot of UT fans wish this group had another year, but whether it was a physical match for this scheme or not, it was just so-so when Tennessee had to have it be elite.
Would the line have been better if the Vols had just lined up in an I-formation and pounded the ball? Maybe. But they didn't, and so such a veteran group has to shoulder the blame when things don't work out.
A senior-laden group had some nice moments, particularly Marlon Walls' play in the middle of the season, and Corey Miller's record-setting performance against Kentucky where he had 4.5 sacks.
But, throughout the course of the season, the defensive line was a weakness. It got very little push, very little pressure on quarterbacks and was devoid of speedy, athletic players who could blow up plays in the backfield.
That's not necessarily their faults, either. Most of the seniors had the best seasons of their careers. Veteran defensive line coach Steve Stripling got the most out of his guys. They just, for whatever reason, weren't SEC difference makers.
The Vols were 13th out of 14 teams in rush defense. Thanks to Miller's record-breaking finale against the Wildcats, they jumped Mississippi State out of last place with 18 sacks on the year.
There simply wasn't any impact. Because of the important flashes—like Miller's UK game, Walls' midseason surge and the final defensive drive against South Carolina—this group doesn't get a failing grade, but the rebuilding process for UT's defense starts on the front line.
AJ Johnson had yet another big tackling season for the Vols, but the linebacking corps again was a weak link for a Tennessee team looking for any future building blocks on defense.
On the bright side, the duo of seniors who started on the outside—Dontavis Sapp and Brent Brewer—helped the group improve from a disastrous 2012 season, but the unit still lacked anywhere near the speed it takes to stop SEC offenses, especially mobile quarterbacks.
When Johnson was forced into coverage in nickel situations, teams exploited the fact that he doesn't possess strong lateral quickness. Getting Curt Maggitt back from injury and the influx of several high-profile recruits into the fold should help UT improve on the second level next year.
First-year coach Tommy Thigpen made a big difference in the group, who helped clean up a lot of the mistakes made by the front line, but the bottom line is it just isn't where it needs to be from a talent or depth perspective.
The Vols need Johnson to return for his senior season and to get better play from more athletic newcomers to take the next step.
While it certainly wouldn't be wise to call the secondary a team strength, the defensive backs did enjoy a big improvement under first-year DBs coach Willie Martinez.
The Vols were atrocious against the pass in 2012, but with the emergence of true freshman cornerback Cameron Sutton and the return of redshirt sophomore Brian Randolph, they did get somewhat better.
There is still a long way to go to get to the middle of the pack in the league, but there are some players around which to build.
Junior cornerback Justin Coleman was burned for big plays too much, and he'll have to battle to keep his job with all the talent coming in 2014. Also, sophomore LaDarrell McNeil was downright overmatched in his first full season as a starter at safety. UT also needs to find a quality nickel back to put on the field.
Poor angles plagued the group all year as it struggled to keep simple plays from turning into big gains. Tackling and getting more athletic are essential for the future.
But as poor as the group was in '12, to finish sixth in the SEC in pass defense and to lead the league with 17 interceptions is a step in the right direction. Like every position, UT just needs more talent and depth.
Tennessee's kick coverage teams were not good this year and reached a season low in a blowout loss to Auburn, but…
What a difference a year makes for the senior kicker/punter. He went from being a constant lightning rod for Tennessee fans to being a Ray Guy Award semifinalist and unequivocally the team's MVP.
There were some minor lapses for Palardy, but he had a fantastic season all the same. He finished 14-of-17 on field goals and 34-of-35 in extra points.
At punter, where he'll play in the NFL, Palardy punted 63 times for a 44.5-yard average, dropping 33 inside the 20-yard line. Nineteen of his punts went for 50 or more yards.
Palardy had an A-plus season, but all the other struggles in coverage docks the grade a letter. While he wasn't dynamic in the return game, Devrin Young always seemed a step away from breaking a kick return, finishing with an average of 25.9 yards per return.
It really is difficult to judge Butch Jones and his staff on their first season in Knoxville when the talent level was as far down as it was.
On one hand, many individual players showed noticeable improvement. The Vols got that elusive signature win over South Carolina, and Jones had brilliant coaching and clock-management decisions in that and the Georgia games. The team never quit like it did under Derek Dooley.
UT was two plays away from a 7-5 season. Of course, given the outcomes of the South Carolina and South Alabama games, the Vols were also a couple of plays away from a 3-9 year, too.
Despite not having the personnel to run Jones' offense, UT plugged it in, anyway, and that was painful at times to watch. That said, it'll be a year into the system in 2014.
Also, no matter what happened the rest of the year, the bottom line is all the Vols had to do to make it to a bowl game and beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky, something they failed to do. Because of that alone, the coaching cannot be considered a complete success.
Still, the Vols have one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, and the buzz around the program is higher than it has been in half a decade. All those intangibles count, and Jones has hit a home run off the field.
He just needs the wins to go along with it.