Tennessee Football: The State of the Program After 2013 Season

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2014

Tennessee Football: The State of the Program After 2013 Season

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    Butch Jones' first season as the Tennessee Volunteers head football coach had a couple of memorable moments but ultimately didn't turn out the way anybody had hoped. Instead, 2013 ended with the 5-7 Vols watching bowl games from home for the third consecutive season.

    UT will lose several starters off this year's squad, but that's not necessarily a terrible thing for a team needing to upgrade its talent and speed at virtually every position. Jones will welcome a huge recruiting class that currently sits at 33 players and ranks fourth nationally according to 247Sports.

    That haul could grow in the coming days, but as long as everybody holds firm, it's reason enough to hope for a brighter future.

    There are probably too many holes where youngsters must provide immediate help to get too excited about 2014, but with an infusion of talent, watching the rebuilding process has some redeeming qualities.

    If they jell quicker than expected, there are enough talented players in place for UT to make some noise.

    The regular SEC slate and an early season trip to Norman, Okla. to take on the Sooners yields another daunting task for an inexperienced team in '14. But making a bowl game and taking that step in the right direction will be a realistic and achievable goal.

    Let's take a look at the state of the program moving into 2014.

Returning Players

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    Tennessee must replace its entire starting offensive line with Antonio "Tiny" Richardson's decision to enter the NFL Draft early, as well as a 1,000-yard rusher in Rajion Neal.

    Actually, the Vols are going to have rebuild everywhere on both sides of the ball. Again, that's probably not the worst news for the future. It just doesn't bode well immediately.


    Returning Starters on Offense (5)

    Quarterback: Joshua Dobbs

    Wide Receivers: Marquez North, Alton "Pig" Howard, Jason Croom

    Tight end: Brendan Downs

    Tennessee returns three quarterbacks who started games in 2013 (Dobbs, Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman), and it's expected to be a full-fledged battle with redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson for the starting role.

    A team strength at times was the running game behind an offensive line full of NFL prospects. But many thought that offensive front underachieved. How much Tennessee will miss them remains to be seen.

    RB Marlin Lane returns and will be joined by a bevy of talented youngsters, but they'll have to run behind an entirely new line. At least UT will have some talented pass-catchers with a year under their belts to help ease the pain, but next season will probably be offensively frustrating yet again.


    Returning Starters on Defense (5)

    Linebackers: AJ Johnson

    Secondary: Cameron Sutton, Justin Coleman, Brian Randolph, LaDarrell McNeil

    The Vols are still waiting patiently to see what All-SEC linebacker AJ Johnson decides to do. If he returns for his senior season, he will anchor a much faster and more talented defense in 2014.

    If he goes pro, even more questions will arise.

    A young, maligned secondary comes back intact and a year older, led by Sutton and Randolph. But there is playing time to be won on the defensive front, where UT needs to find solid contributors in a hurry.

    The return of speed-rushing linebacker Curt Maggitt from a torn ACL suffered in 2011 should be a big boost if he comes back healthy, and an influx of 20 defensive newcomers must provide an immediate boost.

Recruiting Primer

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    Lavon Pearson is one of the mid-term JUCO players who should vie for immediate playing time.
    Lavon Pearson is one of the mid-term JUCO players who should vie for immediate playing time.247Sports

    Tennessee already has signed three mid-term junior college players and currently has verbal commitments from 33 prospects in what has shaped up to be a massive, talented class.

    According to the 247Sports Composite rankings, UT has pledges from 16 4-star players and 17 3-star players.

    While the coaches have kept mum on just how many players they want to take in this year's class, coach Butch Jones said in an interview with Knoxville radio station WNML (via the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown): "You will see us sign more than 30."


    Top Remaining Target

    Without question, the most highly coveted (and desperately needed) recruit left on Tennessee's recruiting board is 5-star cornerback Adoree' Jackson.

    The 5'9.5", 182-pound speed burning shutdown corner from Gardena, Calif., is a top priority for some of the nation's elite, but the Vols have stayed in the race with the end with teams such as USC, Florida, Florida State and LSU.

    While the battle for Jackson's signature will go down to the wire, he told 247Sports' Shea Dixon last week that Tennessee has "a legit shot" for his commitment. If the Vols could land this major coup, he'd stand a great shot to start opposite Cameron Sutton for UT next season.


    Great Scott

    The Vols also appear to be going all-in on North Carolina running back Derrell Scott, the nation's No. 2 ranked all-purpose running back.

    Tennessee already has commitments from 4-star running back Jalen Hurd and 3-star running back Treyvon Paulk in this class, but both missed significant time with injuries during their senior seasons.

    With Rajion Neal heading to the NFL and with just one proven SEC runner—Marlin Lane—who is a senior, returning on the roster, the Vols need talent and depth. Scott provides both, and he could get immediate reps if UT beats out South Carolina for his commitment.

Stars of the Future

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    Cameron Sutton has 'star' written all over him.
    Cameron Sutton has 'star' written all over him.Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    Here's a trio of second-year players who could experience breakout campaigns in 2014.


    Cameron Sutton

    The true freshman from Jonesboro, Ga. did nothing but impress from Day 1.

    He started 12 games, not allowing a single reception of more than 20 yards all season. He earned second-team Freshman All-American honors from Athlon in a campaign that saw him make 39 tackles, lead the team with nine pass deflections and grab two interceptions.

    There weren't a lot of bright spots on Tennessee's defense, but Sutton is a major building block. The Vols are relying on him to be a shutdown corner moving forward, and he has that ability.


    Marquez North

    North's season was surging before he hit the late season wall while battling through nagging injuries, but he still managed 38 catches for a team-high 496 yards. Those are respectable numbers, especially considering the turmoil UT had at quarterback.

    North also proved he has a flare for the dramatic, making UT's highlight-reel catch of the year to set up the game-winning field goal against South Carolina.

    His first career touchdown against Georgia also yielded "the most amazing college football photo of the year," according to USA Today's Nick Schwartz.

    With an influx of receiving talent (Josh Malone, Lavon Pearson) to take some pressure off, 2014 could be a special season.


    Riley Ferguson

    Perhaps it's a leap to call Ferguson's name as a breakout candidate, especially considering it's always the next quarterback on the bench who's the savior.

    But Ferguson was the freshman coaches were quietly most excited about, and he was ahead of Joshua Dobbs on the depth chart all season.

    Then, just before he would have gotten the opportunity to play, Ferguson fractured his tibia before the Alabama game, Butch Jones confirmed to the Knoxville Quarterback Club, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Evan Woodbery.

    Justin Worley was lost for the year against the Crimson Tide, and Dobbs—who wasn't ready—was the only healthy scholarship quarterback available.

    Ferguson should win the starting job this spring and run with it.


Coaching Staff

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    Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

    Any time a coaching staff has this level of recruiting success, there's a concern with keeping the group intact. The good thing for Tennessee is Butch Jones has an existing relationship with virtually every assistant on his staff.

    Still, money talks—and coaches listen.

    There already have been some UT assistants whose names have been brought up for other jobs.

    Various news outlets, including Savannah, Ga.'s WJCL television station's Frank Sulkowski, reported that UT wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Zach Azzanni was interviewed by Georgia Southern for their head coaching vacancy.

    Azzanni's interview never was confirmed.

    CoachingSearch.com reported on Dec. 10 that Bowling Green had interest in UT offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian to replace head coach Dave Clawson, though that rumor seems to have dissipated as well.

    Finally, with all the recruiting success UT linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen has experienced on the recruiting trail this year, he could be a hot name that pops up for other positions. He's rated by 247Sports as the nation's No. 5 recruiter, and he has a bunch of ties to coaches around the country.

    With a salary of just $350,000, Thigpen may be in line for a raise if the Vols want to keep him.

    Continuity will benefit the Vols moving forward, and they really should do everything within reason to keep the staff together as long as they can.

2014 Outlook

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    Schedules are oftentimes made years in advance, but the former regimes in the athletic department didn't do the Tennessee Vols any favors as they try to rebuild.

    Fresh off returning the home-and-home favor to Oregon in a lopsided loss this year, UT must travel to Norman, Okla. to take on Bob Stoops' Sooners on Sept. 13 next season.

    Prior to that tilt with national implications, the Vols host two bowl teams—Utah State and Arkansas State—to open the season. The Aggies especially will be a tall task if quarterback Chuckie Keeton returns from his season-ending knee injury in typical form.

    With the SEC schedule changing, the Vols won't face Florida so early in the season, which is something UT fans have clamored for for years.

    The Vols go from Oklahoma to Athens, Ga. to open SEC play with the Bulldogs on Sept. 27 before coming home to host the Gators on the first weekend of October.

    A brief respite against Chattanooga is followed by a road trip to Ole Miss as the talented Rebels rotate onto the schedule. The Vols host rival Alabama on Oct. 25, then travel to South Carolina before closing the season with home games against Kentucky and Missouri and a road trip to Vanderbilt.

    That schedule holds plenty of tests, especially for a team that will feature first-year players all over the field. Frustrated UT fans want immediate success, but patience will be key in 2014. Much like this year, a bowl game is a realistic goal and one that Butch Jones needs to meet to keep off the heat.

    Rational Vols fans know this project is going to take time, but visible signs of progress are necessary.