Tennessee Football: Butch Jones' Biggest Concerns Post-Spring Practice
Various buds of optimism sprouted throughout Tennessee head coach Butch Jones' post-Orange and White Game press conference.
Unfortunately for the young Volunteers, the words were surrounded by the weeds of worry.
The 2014 season is going to be like that for the Vols—full of hope as inexperienced players thrust into important roles all over the field grow and shine, and full of frustration, as they inevitably struggle adjusting to the rugged SEC.
For every emerging playmaker on offense or the vast improvement from the quarterback position Jones touched on Saturday, there were caveats.
The team's stars are young. The mistakes are abundant. The defense has holes. The offensive line is undeveloped. The depth has not yet arrived.
Questions abound. The stark reality is Jones, his staff and his young team have a lot of work to do in the next five months to get ready for a ridiculous schedule. This is a Vols team that will get a lot better throughout the course of the season. But what do they need to focus on foremost?
Let's take a look at the biggest concerns facing UT this offseason.
All quotes obtained firsthand.
Walking back to the press box Saturday, one newspaper columnist was talking to another about this year's Vols when he came across the team's biggest, most noticeable wart.
"That second team defense," he said, "is atrocious." The other turned around and quipped: "That second team defense gets here in June."
Indeed, 14 of the 18 prospects set to arrive on campus this summer project as defenders. That includes 12 players that 247Sports rated as 4-stars.
When asked if he communicates to his signees about the immediate opportunity to play, Butch Jones said: "If they don't understand that message, then they're not listening."
The place where depth is most needed is up the middle on the defensive line. The Vols simply have to get bigger and stronger on the interior.
"It's everywhere, and it starts upfront on the defensive line, that's no secret. Everyone in our football program knows that these individuals have to be ready to go. Is it a great challenge to get a 17 or 18-year-old ready to play in the SEC? Absolutely. But that's where we are in our program, and it's a tremendous opportunity."
Help is on the way, and it was evident on Saturday that it's desperately needed. UT's offense gashed the reserve defenders as if Sal Sunseri was still coaching them.
UT's first-team defense has some talent, and it will be even better when defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry and safety Brian Randolph return from injuries. The backups are a work in progress, and they have to learn in a hurry.
The Wrap Game
Sticking on the defensive side of the football, the Vols struggled to tackle in space yet again on Saturday, a cringe-worthy flashback from a season ago.
Part of that had to do with the lack of talent tiered throughout the two-deep depth chart, but there were far too many issues wrapping up when the starters were on the field, too.
The Vols don't have the athletes to miss tackles. Fundamentals are essential for the success of defensive coordinator John Jancek's unit, and it is something they've got to fix immediately (a difficult proposition sans full pads).
If they don't, teams will feast on big gains in much the way Alabama, Auburn and Missouri did last year, and in much the way UT's offense did during the spring game.
"It was a tough day for the defense," junior defensive end/outside linebacker Curt Maggitt said Saturday. "We didn't play well.
"We missed way too many tackles tonight. We have a long way to go as a defense."
Butch Jones has to trim the list.
There's simply no way four quarterbacks can split reps deep into fall camp and the team develop any consistent continuity with the one who ultimately gets the nod.
A little clarity seemed to peek over the horizon toward the end of spring practice when rising senior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson separated themselves and earned a split of first-team reps.
Then came Joshua Dobbs in the Orange and White Game.
Dobbs' dynamic, athletic performance included 258 total yards of offense and four touchdowns, putting him right back in the conversation to start.
His performance, and the overall improvement of the signal-callers as a whole, has generated quite a buzz, even if they still need to minimize mistakes.
"Night and day where we were," Jones said of the quarterbacks this spring. "I thought our quarterbacks were aggressive, they were decisive, and they were confident in what they were seeing…"
Now, he just has to trim the list.
Locking Down the Left
Tennessee signed one of the most coveted junior college offensive linemen in the nation in Dontavius Blair.
So, why was fifth-year senior walk-on Jacob Gilliam starting at left tackle over the 6'8", 313-pound Blair throughout the last half of spring practices?
Blair has yet to show any consistency in his pad leverage and technique. He also has struggled to keep pace in UT's up-tempo offense on an every-snap basis, according to Butch Jones in GoVols247 reporter Ryan Callahan's story (subscription required).
It isn't a knock on Gilliam to say the Vols need Blair to take back the spot. The nearby Farragut product is a nice spring story, and the hope is he can provide quality depth throughout a rigorous conference schedule.
But Blair is the big, talented prospect with an NFL body. He is the guy who has the physical qualities to neutralize nasty SEC defensive tackles.
Blair needs to get in shape, get his mentality and fundamentals in order and seize back the starting gig this summer. If he does that, it will go a long way in answering one of the lingering offensive line questions.
It was a dismal spring for Tennessee's safeties.
Part of the reason was leader Brian Randolph missing the session to recover from surgery. The Vols' second-leading tackler and top interception man from a season ago should be 100 percent by the time fall drills get here.
But the other reason is rising junior LaDarrell McNeil just hasn't developed like expected, following a promising freshman year.
He takes poor angles on ball-carriers, struggles with speed on the back end and has really not done a good job in capping plays that break through the first two levels of the defense. He hasn't proven fast or instinctual enough to play defensive back.
While Randolph will almost assuredly have a strong chance to start once he gets healthy, McNeil must improve drastically or one (or more) of the trio of 4-star newcomers RaShaan Gaulden, Todd Kelly Jr. or Cortez McDowell will overtake him.
Tennessee has to upgrade the back end of its defense, even if it means playing true freshmen. Along with shoring up the defensive tackle spots, it's one of the biggest holes to fill.
Morphing the Mentality
Tennessee isn't a football program used to winning anymore.
The Vols nearly tasted victory against a good Georgia team last season before finally getting a big win over South Carolina. But they went on to lose to Alabama, Auburn, Missouri and Vanderbilt to close the year, missing a bowl game for the third consecutive year.
Having so much youth is scary, but it's also nice to have a fresh start. Butch Jones has to instill a winning mentality into this team, and he has the ability to mold the new players to believe this is a new era of Tennessee football.
Players throughout the past few years at Tennessee simply haven't ever learned to win. Part of the reason is that they weren't talented enough to consistently compete, but they'd also struggled to play complete games. Too many times under Derek Dooley, games fell apart late.
Last year, Jones didn't have the horses, but he does now, even if they are freshmen.
It takes time to turn around a losing program. But a couple of big wins is just what Jones needs to get everybody around the program believing that the Vols are back.