As Tennessee scored nearly at will during the Orange and White Game, 68,542 orange-obsessed minds likely pondered a common question asked in some variation afterward:
Is this new-look offense that good, or is the Volunteers' rebuilding defense that awful?
While a little bit of both elements were no doubt to blame, there is genuine reason for positive vibes.
UT's quarterbacks look completely different from a game-management and tempo standpoint, while there is vastly more talent in the receiving corps and the Vols have added an electrifying running back in freshman Jalen Hurd.
Weapons—albeit young ones—are firmly in place for the Vols to make some noise and score enough points to win games in the SEC in 2014.
If coaches can find a consistent core of offensive linemen and hold opponents at bay on defense (two huge question marks), the talent at the skill positions is impressive enough to shock the league.
"Just the explosiveness out of our skill group has been impressive," UT senior quarterback Justin Worley noted after the spring game, "and it's been a huge change from Year 1 to Year 2."
Indeed, every mistake was magnified for a 2013 offense that had no room for error. Turnovers opened floodgates, and empty possessions were answered with opponents' scores, especially late in the season.
Tennessee didn't have the depth or talent to keep up, as evidenced by an offense that ranked 11th in the league in scoring, ninth in rushing, 13th in passing and 12th in total offense.
|Ineptitude in Orange: Tennessee's 2013 SEC Offensive Rankings|
|Rush Offense||188.4 ypg||9th|
|Pass Offense||164.9 ypg||13th|
|Total Offense||353.3 ypg||12th|
Thanks to an infusion of 12 new offensive players mid-term, Tennessee has transformed on that side of the ball. Second-year head coach Butch Jones told Volquest's John Brice and Brent Hubbs (subscription required) this week that the immediate contributions of those guys were "extremely evident."
None more so than at the pass-catching positions, where receivers Josh Malone, Von Pearson and tight ends Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm have changed the dynamic of UT's passing game.
Malone had his coming-out party in the spring finale with six catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns, and Pearson stole the show in the opening weeks of spring drills.
It's difficult to envision many teams having a stable of defensive backs talented enough, fast enough or big enough to keep up with Tennessee's trio of Marquez North (6'4", 221 pounds), Malone (6'3", 202) and Pearson (6'3", 181).
Throw in players like Jason Croom (6'5", 234), Josh Smith (6'1", 197), Wolf (6'5", 243) and Helm (6'4", 232), and you'll see why the buzz is brewing.
Size. Speed. Talent.
With big, talented targets like UT's receivers to throw to, the quarterbacks can't help but be better. But that isn't the only reason for the improvement.
The Vols want to play at a helter-skelter speed on offense and still be under complete control. Jones expects his team's offensive tempo to resemble that of Auburn, Oregon and Baylor.
The Vols aren't there yet, but the crispness the offense displayed throughout the spring shows they're getting there.
Tempo like that is difficult to defend, especially with SEC defenses still adapting to facing such a tempo rather than a league that has been grounded in rugged roots.
"I thought our pace was much better," Jones said after the spring game. "There's still times on an incomplete pass where it's not a license to walk back to the line of scrimmage. We'll continue to work on that. But I thought our overall pace has really improved on a consistent basis throughout the entire course of the spring."
Pace doesn't matter if you can't move the chains, though, and the Vols must replace their entire offensive line that was loaded with future NFL players.
It's a major overhaul, but it may not be as big a deal as some think.
The Vols struggled to run-block with the old group of linemen, and as noted by Bleacher Report writer, draft analyst and former NFL player Ryan Riddle, having stellar NFL talent on the line doesn't always translate into big numbers.
If the new-look offensive line can be serviceable, the Vols will have talented enough runners to maintain a balanced attack to keep defenders honest.
Senior Marlin Lane has shown a propensity throughout his career to get tough yards between the tackles. Hurd is a perfect fit for Jones' offense and has the size-and-speed combination to be a legit, immediate threat in the league.
Jones said after the spring game that Hurd "is going to be a special player for us."
Throw in acclaimed high school runner Derrell Scott and change-of-pace senior Devrin Young, and UT has solid running options.
There are former elite recruits all over the field on that side of the ball, and even though youth doesn't always translate well in the SEC, talent can trump the learning curve.
If everything comes together, SEC defenses may find out what UT already knows.
"They are playmakers," cornerback Justin Coleman said of his offensive skill-position teammates. "They know how to go up and get the ball in their hands. Then, their plan is to score."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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