Tennessee Football: 6 Things Butch Jones Needs to Accomplish in Spring Practice
With the calendar flipped to 2014 and this year's recruiting cycle wrapped up, Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones and his staff have directed their attention to spring practice.
For Jones, this year's 15 practices—slated to begin March 7 and culminating with the Orange and White Game on April 12—are vital to this program taking the next step. In order for an incredibly youthful Volunteers team to make a bowl game in 2014, several things need to occur.
From questions at quarterback to revamping several positions from scratch, the Vols have to break some serious ground in Jones' reconstruction process.
There is plenty for Jones to worry about, but the best news for Tennessee is every Vols scholarship quarterback already is on campus and UT welcomed 14 early enrollees who should provide an injection of serious talent into a program needing it.
Let's take a look at six major projects on Jones' to-do list once spring practice kicks off in less than a month.
A Tennessee program that has been very well-behaved under Jones suffered a minor embarrassment last weekend when two players were arrested on alcohol-related charges at a party, according to CBSSports.com's Tom Fornelli via the Associated Press.
One of those—rising senior A.J. Johnson—is a senior who is expected to team with fellow linebacker Curt Maggitt to provide defensive leadership.
Seven more Vols received citations in conjunction with the same incident.
While college kids drinking alcohol and causing a ruckus isn't a new development, it doesn't help further the positive direction Jones had steered the program. This kind of thing hearkens back to the old Fulmer Cup days.
The Vols need to move beyond the incident and focus on getting better. Players like Johnson and Maggitt—both of who reportedly were at the party—have to spearhead that on the defense.
Offensively, star receiver Marquez North, rising senior quarterback Justin Worley and running back Marlin Lane have to take leadership roles.
A lot of the vocal leaders graduated from the 2013 team, but in all fairness, those guys never won. It's up to a new group to establish a winning mentality and change the direction of the program. That starts in the weight room but needs to be evident as early as spring.
Settle on a Starting Quarterback
Quarterback was a major issue for Tennessee during a 2013 season full of problems.
Just when it looked like things were starting to click for Worley, he was lost for the season to injury. Even though true freshman Joshua Dobbs showed some flashes in relief, he simply wasn't ready for SEC football.
Nathan Peterman was awful against Florida, got hurt and never played again. When he finally would have gotten an opportunity, Riley Ferguson was injured leading up to the Alabama game and was forced to redshirt.
None of those guys taking the reins has led to a full-fledged, survival-of-the-fittest battle to be Tennessee's starting quarterback this spring. So, who will it be?
The money here's on Ferguson.
The Vols believe several are capable, but given their stark differences, the earlier Jones picks his horse, the earlier the team can ride that player's strengths and build the offense around him.
There's nothing wrong with healthy competition, but Jones doesn't need this bout to last deep into fall practice the way it did last year. When that happens, it's normally because nobody has taken charge rather than several.
Morph Newcomers into Contributors
Fourteen new Vols were welcomed into the fold midterm, and the vast majority of those players have the opportunity to be major contributors right away.
Guys like running back Jalen Hurd, receivers Josh Malone and Von Pearson, tight ends Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm, right tackle Coleman Thomas, left tackle Dontavius Blair, defensive tackle Owen Williams and cornerbacks D'Andre Payne and Emmanuel Moseley could even start.
All of the players listed at least should play.
That's a jolt of talent into a depleted roster, and it's up to the coaches to insert them into the mix and put them all in the position to battle the incumbents.
Jones will have some weapons at his disposal that simply weren't available in 2013, and he needs to incorporate them this spring so they play like veterans this fall when they'll be depended on.
Find at Least 6 Serviceable Offensive Linemen
It isn't every season that a team has to replace all five starting offensive linemen, especially in the rugged SEC.
But that's the unenviable task facing offensive line coach Don Mahoney in 2014 after Antonio "Tiny" Richardson elected to enter the NFL draft. Seniors Ja'Wuan James, James Stone, Alex Bullard and Zach Fulton already exhausted their eligibility as well.
So, the Vols are looking for help, and it'll have to come from a pool of candidates with little experience.
Junior guard Marcus Jackson redshirted last year to tier depth, and he should be an anchor who can play the next two years. Both center Mack Crowder and guard Dylan Wiesman played a fair amount in '13 in reserve roles, and they will battle to start.
Rising junior Kyler Kerbyson will tussle with Wiesman and Jackson to start at one of the guard spots, but he has the versatility to play inside or out.
At offensive tackle, there isn't nearly as much experience as there is inside, and it's a wide-open concern. Newcomers Blair and Thomas will have every opportunity to start immediately.
Blair was a highly rated JUCO prospect who projects to left tackle, and Thomas is a versatile freshman who is already working out at right tackle. Mix in redshirt freshmen Brett Kendrick and Austin Sanders, and UT has little experience in the pool for the external line.
Jones must find the perfect mixture of talent there, and he has to do that this spring. All of those guys are on campus, so UT has to build the line of the future right now.
Speed Up the D
Perhaps the biggest X-factor on Tennessee's entire defense is Maggitt, who returns after missing the entire 2013 season to a knee injury.
Will he be the disruptive, speedy edge-rusher he was as a freshman, or will the injury leave him a step behind? If Maggitt is the player of old, UT's defense will be much better in 2014.
But that isn't the only place the Vols must upgrade their talent. In games against Missouri and Auburn, UT's lack of defensive speed was brutally exposed. That's why some newcomers and some new contributors have to upgrade .
Rising sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a speedy converted safety who has the opportunity to seize the only open outside linebacker spot this spring prior to guys like Dillon Bates and Chris Weatherd getting on campus.
Speedy Payne and Moseley should really upgrade the talent pool at cornerback.
UT also must replace all of its starters on the defensive line, and it has got a wealth of talent coming in this wrapped-up recruiting class. Unfortunately for the Vols, most of those guys arrive after spring drills. Still, a player like defensive tackle Williams can get a lead on the rest of the pack this spring.
The Vols appear on paper to be a lot more athletic defensively, but that has to translate onto the field.
Identify Sleeper 'Leapers'
Reeves-Maybin was a special teams demon for the Vols as a true freshman. Now, he'll attempt to make the leap into a full-time defensive starter.
The Clarksville, Tenn., native will attempt to lock down a starting outside linebacker spot, and there are other former role players in Knoxville who need to play key roles this year for UT to be successful.
Defensive ends Kendal Vickers, Jaylen Miller and Jordan Williams have drawn some positive buzz this offseason, and they need to entrench themselves firmly in the defensive line rotation moving forward.
At defensive tackle, Jason Carr and Danny O'Brien have prime opportunities to earn playing time since the duo of Daniel McCullers and Dan Hood are out of eligibility. If Trevarris Saulsberry is healthy, he'll be a force who could contend to lock down a starting spot this spring, too.
Offensively, former walk-on Alex Ellis has a chance to earn reps at tight end, and multiple offensive linemen already on campus have to transition to being dependable players.
The Vols simply can't rely on freshmen to be successful in 2014. They must have some seasoned players take the next step to provide depth. Spring is the perfect time to do that.