Tennessee Football: 6 Things We Learned About the Volunteers This Spring
With spring practice in the rear-view mirror, the current state of the Tennessee Volunteers football team is becoming clearer.
While there is still an entire offseason to correct mistakes and more than half of a vaunted recruiting class yet to arrive in Knoxville, early assessments can be made about the 2014 rendition of the Vols.
The initial returns are that even though they aren't nearly ready to compete at a championship level, they've improved since coach Butch Jones' inaugural 5-7 season.
In the midst of his post-spring evaluation, Jones told Volquest.com's Brent Hubbs and John Brice (subscription required) his team is green but growing: "I think the overall strides has been the complete overall development of our football team in terms of forming great habits, improving some positions from a competitive standpoint, our standards and our expectations."
From the lines of scrimmage to a lack of defensive depth, there are various talent gulfs for which UT must compensate. Luckily, improvement at quarterback and a stable of able playmakers on offense look promising.
Here are six things we think we know about the Vols entering the critical summer strength and conditioning months.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Potential Playmakers Abound
An infusion of some serious talent has brought out the best in Tennessee's existing players.
That's normally what happens when starting jobs are at stake and competition brims at every position. There is more sense of urgency among the old guard, and the entire team improves.
Newcomers like running back Jalen Hurd, receivers Josh Malone and Von Pearson and tight ends Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf have made the Vols a dangerous offensive team.
The quarterbacks appear more confident, and the offensive tempo is crisper.
As a result, incumbents like rising senior Marlin Lane have elevated their play. Also, a talented star like sophomore receiver Marquez North is blossoming without increased attention thanks to the other weapons defenders now must consider.
Most of UT's talented offensive newcomers were mid-term enrollees, and their presence in spring practice will be invaluable considering many of them will be factors on the depth chart come fall.
An offense that sputtered a season ago now appears as if it will be the team's strength as a young team looks to find its way through a rugged schedule.
Dearth of Defensive Depth
Wide receiver Josh Malone and quarterback Joshua Dobbs are talented young players who look like they've got bright futures.
But the Vols' reserve defenders made them look like Heisman Trophy winners during the Orange and White Game.
That's not good news for defensive coordinator John Jancek.
UT's first-team defense looked all right (other than safety LaDarrell McNeil and a lack of experience on the defensive line) with some nice building blocks. Beyond that, UT needs depth-chart help. Immediately.
Teams that go one-deep don't succeed in the SEC, as the 2013 Vols learned quickly.
Thankfully for UT, 14 of the 18 prospects set to arrive on campus this summer project as defenders. That includes 12 players 247Sports rated as 4-stars.
"What the 12 newcomers did on the offensive side of the ball, the newcomers coming in will help that much if not even more on the defensive side of the ball," Jones told Volquest (subscription required). "So I'm very excited about that."
If they don't, the Vols are in trouble.
Quarterbacks Vastly Improved
A year ago, Tennessee employed three different starting quarterbacks.
This spring opened a four-player free-for-all to see who'd start for the Vols in 2014.
If that doesn't tell you anything about last year's play at the position, nothing will. The encouraging news for UT is all four players looked vastly improved this spring from a season ago.
Senior Justin Worley's offensive command looked stronger than ever, even if he lacked the "wow" factor.
Joshua Dobbs punctuated an inconsistent spring with a highlight-reel, four-touchdown finale in front of nearly 70,000 fans.
Redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson spent his spring practice neck and neck with Worley, splitting first-team reps as the session wound down. Even with a subpar spring finale, Ferguson is still prominently in the picture to start.
Even Nathan Peterman showed glimpses of his dual-threat capabilities at times.
While there's some general concern nobody has seized control of the job, the hope is there's plenty of talent from which to choose. If a couple of UT signal-callers have the light come on, the Vols offense can be dangerous.
Trouble in the Trenches
The Tennessee Vols must replace all nine starters on the offensive and defensive lines.
They play a nonconference schedule against bowl teams Utah State, Arkansas State and Oklahoma before the traditional murderers' row of the SEC.
Even eternal optimist Butch Jones frets about that.
"It's a major concern," he told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) this week. "Major concern."
The Vols are simply going to have to play freshmen and newcomers all over the place in the trenches.
Exiting spring, newcomers at left tackle (Dontavius Blair), right tackle (Coleman Thomas) and defensive tackle (Dimarya Mixon and Owen Williams) all had logged first-team reps.
Freshmen defensive linemen Dewayne Hendrix, Derek Barnett, Joe Henderson, Michael Sawyers and Charles Mosley also figure to factor into the equation once they arrive on campus.
Playing freshmen up front normally doesn't bode well, but that's simply the state of the program thanks to Derek Dooley's recruiting misses and failures.
The Vols will be talented; they just must get through inevitable growing pains quickly.
Since most of Tennessee's influx of midterm talent was on the offensive side, the speed transformation was obvious.
But UT's defense—which was horribly lacking for playmakers in 2013—got much more athletic with the few additions it brought in. That side of the ball will be even more overhauled this summer.
This spring, junior Curt Maggitt returned from more than a year of rehabbing a knee injury to give the Vols a pass-rusher off the edge when he shifted down to defensive end.
Sophomore outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin displayed his athleticism in an all-over-the-field performance during the Orange and White Game. Though he needs to add a few pounds, he'll be a major upgrade over Dontavis Sapp and Brent Brewer from a season ago.
In the secondary, freshman Emmanuel Moseley (arguably the team's fastest player) surged to the top of the depth chart at cornerback.
Defensive backs like Rashaan Gaulden, Todd Kelly Jr., Cortez McDowell and Evan Berry will elevate that athleticism even more when they get to Knoxville. So will linebackers Dillon Bates, Chris Weatherd and Gavin Bryant.
UT has a way to go, but the talent is coming.
Tangles with Tackles and Angles
It won't be easy to forget speedsters decked in Auburn orange and blue and Mizzou black and gold streaking by Vols like they were standing still.
But that wasn't just a lack of speed that contributed to Tennessee's defensive woes in 2013.
Poor tackling and angles were just as big of a factor. Those old foes reared their heads again in the spring finale.
"The biggest thing I'm most disappointed in that we need to take tremendous strides is our tackling," Butch Jones said following the spring finale. "We've spent an inordinate amount of time this spring in terms of tackling.
"On the positive side of it, we were in good position to make the tackles. We'll break all the missed tackles down and...we'll get those issues corrected."
Though there will be a major infusion of talent, UT isn't going to have the depth of speedy playmakers to be able to get away with missing tackles at the point of impact.
Fundamentals are going to be key until the Vols are able to throw out waves of talent that can only come through consistent recruiting. Until then, they've got to get much better tackling in a hurry.