Power Ranking Tennessee Football's Positional Units for 2014

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJune 30, 2014

Power Ranking Tennessee Football's Positional Units for 2014

0 of 9

    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    A year ago, a Tennessee football team rife with seniors struggled to finish 5-7, and those seniors closed their careers with a third bowl-less season. Talent gaps glared at positions all over the field.

    Many of those needs have been addressed by coach Butch Jones through recruiting, but you rarely fix flaws with freshmen. Instead, Jones' 32-player recruiting class has to be the first step on the path to progression.

    There are still plenty of questions across the roster, and answers have to be found in first-year players. Others who've barely played key roles on Rocky Top now must become leaders.

    "We had to be extremely careful this past year in trying to fix all our ills, all our deficiencies in one recruiting class," Jones told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview earlier this spring. "We're not going to be able to do that. It takes time to develop that.

    "The only way you can address that is develop your current players and keep recruiting. We have needs across the board at every single position in this (2015) class still."

    There will be fewer younger teams across the nation than UT. Even the perceived positions of strength hinge on hope.

    Let's look at the Volunteers position-by-position and break down where Jones will have to lean for production and the areas where smoke and mirrors may be his two biggest weapons.

    The rankings are based on observing the star talent each position unit has as well as depth and overall potential of the group.

9. Special Teams

1 of 9

    After losing his job to Michael Palardy, rising senior Matt Darr has one last chance to be a serviceable punter.
    After losing his job to Michael Palardy, rising senior Matt Darr has one last chance to be a serviceable punter.Associated Press

    Top Players - None

    Question Marks - Punter Matt Darr and kickers George Bullock, Aaron Medley and Derrick Brodus

    Why They're Ranked Here

    Replacing Michael Palardy—a Ray Guy Award semifinalist who handled all kicking duties a year ago—is going to be an extremely difficult task. As a matter of fact, it's a major worry.

    The Volunteers likely will try to do it by committee.

    Redshirt senior punter Darr has started before at UT, averaging 38.4 yards per career punt. But he has struggled with consistency and directional kicking and has been downright terrible at times.

    The Vols are hoping he has a senior resurgence much the way Palardy did a season ago after losing his job in the preseason.

    As for place-kicking duties, that job is wide open. 

    The Vols signed Medley, who was the nation's sixth-ranked high school kicker, according to the 247Sports Composite. The Lewisburg, Tennessee native can kick and punt and will compete for both jobs, though place-kicking is his forte.

    Sophomore Bullock and senior walk-on Brodus are the other two kickers in the mix, and it will be an intriguing battle once fall camp starts. Special teams will be a real weakness if somebody doesn't step up.

8. Defensive Backs

2 of 9

    Sophomore cornerback Cameron Sutton will try to build off an exceptional freshman campaign.
    Sophomore cornerback Cameron Sutton will try to build off an exceptional freshman campaign.John Raoux/Associated Press

    Top Players - Cornerback Cameron Sutton and safety Brian Randolph

    Question Marks - Justin Coleman, LaDarrell McNeil, Emmanuel Moseley, Evan Berry, Rashaan Gaulden, Todd Kelly Jr., Cortez McDowell, Malik Foreman, Devaun Swafford

    Why They're Ranked Here

    A season ago, the Vols struggled to stop anybody on defense, allowing an average of 29 points per game, according to the SEC official site. 

    While UT was just seventh in pass defense, a hidden ingredient to why the unit was so poor was a lack of team speed on the back level that failed to keep runs contained.

    Upgrading defensive speed everywhere is the team's biggest need, but that's especially true in the secondary. Butch Jones hopes inking a well-regarded stable of signees will go a long way in meeting that shortfall.

    UT desperately needs at least two of a group of Moseley, Berry, Gaulden, Kelly and McDowell to have comparable freshman years as Sutton did a season ago when he flashed shutdown skills.

    The cornerback from Jonesboro, Georgia returns as a stalwart, and a sophomore slump really needs to be avoided. Randolph focused on getting bigger this offseason and will have to be a leader. Every other position is up for grabs.

    It's a familiar refrain for the Vols: There is tons of talent here, but it's largely unproven. The freshmen will have to provide depth, and a couple need to seize starting roles for this group to be improved.

    If that happens, the group will be much better than a forgettable 2013.

7. Offensive Line

3 of 9

    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Top Players - Mack Crowder, Kyler Kerbyson

    Question Marks - Coleman Thomas, Dontavius Blair, Marcus Jackson, Jacob Gilliam, Dylan Wiesman

    Why They're Ranked Here

    The Vols have nobody on their roster who've ever anchored an offensive line, and there are just six career starts on the whole unit. The next-fewest in the league is Alabama at 37, according to Athlon's Phil Steele.

    Coach Don Mahoney certainly has his work cut out for him, as UT has to replace all five starters from a season ago.

    This spring looked exactly the way you'd expect it to with inconsistency throughout the group. The interior of the line could be a strength with Crowder, Kerbyson and Jackson leading the way. Wiesman has immense ability as well.

    At tackle, there are concerning questions. True freshman Thomas looked strong at times this spring and flashed massive potential, but he's a freshman. JUCO transfer Blair struggled so much he lost his job to a fifth-year former walk-on Gilliam, and that will be a battle well into fall drills.

    According to GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required):

    The Vols are in much better shape along the interior than they are at tackle, where replacing NFL-bound stars Tiny Richardson and Ja'Wuan James will be a tall, tall task. But the emergence of Thomas this spring was still a positive. The young Virginian will learn some tough lessons along the way, but he’s mentally and physically very strong for his age and will be expected to give as much as he gets athletically, even at the SEC level. 

    If UT gets its tackle situation straightened out, the group could surprise. But that's a huge question mark.

6. Linebackers

4 of 9

    A.J. Johnson has to break through and have the kind of season worthy of a high-round draft pick.
    A.J. Johnson has to break through and have the kind of season worthy of a high-round draft pick.Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Top Players - A.J. Johnson

    Question Marks - Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Dillon Bates, Gavin Bryant, Kenny Bynum, Justin King, Colton Jumper, Neiko Creamer

    Why They're Ranked Here

    Any questions about whether Tennessee was going to play mostly nickel defense this fall were answered with the move of Curt Maggitt to the defensive line.

    The junior leader is now listed on the roster as an end after spending most of the spring there. He still may stand up in some basic sets, but Maggitt will have a hand down most of the time. 

    Considering UT has just two other linebackers who've played any real meaningful college snaps, it would be difficult to see the Vols having three on the field often.

    Johnson is the star, a senior tackling machine who will be selected in next year's NFL draft, and the Vols need a huge final season from him. It's vital that he makes more big plays than he has in a career that has been decorated but short on creating game-changing opponent miscues.

    Reeves-Maybin is a sophomore who was awesome on special teams a season ago but now must step into a role as outside linebacker, and he started all spring. Bates is a former 4-star OLB with elite coverage and tackling skills who expects to work immediately into the rotation.

    Both are talented players, but neither is proven. 

    The same goes for former roster fodder Bynum and King, recruits Bryant and Creamer and surprising walk-on Jumper who, according to Nooga.com's Daniel Lewis, worked his way onto the two-deep depth chart this spring.

5. Defensive Line

5 of 9

    Tennessee sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen has to have a monster season.
    Tennessee sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen has to have a monster season.Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Top Players - Curt Maggitt, Corey Vereen, Trevarris Saulsberry

    Question Marks - Owen Williams, Jordan Williams, Dimarya Mixon, Danny O'Brien, Kendal Vickers, Jakob Johnson, Jaylen Miller, LaTroy Lewis, Dewayne Hendrix, Michael Sawyers, Derek Barnett, Joe Henderson, Charles Mosley, Jashon Robertson

    Why They're Ranked Here

    The Vols have so many questions on the defensive line, even the top players have worries swirling around them.

    • Saulsberry has been good when he's been healthy, but he rarely stays on the field. Now, UT desperately needs an All-SEC-caliber year out of him on the interior.
    • Maggitt has exceptional pass-rushing ability, but he hasn't played since November of 2012.
    • Vereen was the team's best pass-rusher a season ago, but he has never been an every-down player.

    All of them have immense ability, but they've all got to tap into it.

    As for the rest of the crew, it's a group with potential but youth everywhere. Literally everybody is a jumbo-sized question mark.

    The defensive line struggled this spring and was horrible in the final scrimmage, but that was before Hendrix, Sawyers, Barnett, Henderson, Mosley and Robertson arrived. Five of those freshmen were rated 4-star players by either the 247Sports or the Composite rankings.

    Throw in the flashes Owen Williams and Mixon showed this spring, and the newcomers are off to a good start.

    But Tennessee must have experienced players like O'Brien and Jordan Williams progress to provide depth, and a few of the freshmen must break out. Or they'll be shredded again like a season ago.

4. Quarterbacks

6 of 9

    Tennessee senior Justin Worley was just beginning to play better when an injury suffered against Alabama sidelined him for the remainder of 2013.
    Tennessee senior Justin Worley was just beginning to play better when an injury suffered against Alabama sidelined him for the remainder of 2013.USA TODAY Sports

    Top Players - None

    Question Marks - Justin Worley, Joshua Dobbs, Nathan Peterman

    Why They're Ranked Here

    A season ago, Worley struggled, lost his job, regained it, improved as the year progressed and then was lost against Alabama to injury for the remainder of the season.

    He didn't do much to inspire confidence.

    But throughout the spring, Worley commanded the offense enough to stay out front of four players in a wide-open battle. Then, in the spring game, he looked sharp, confident and like a different quarterback than the one who trotted out of the "T" in 2013.

    When Riley Ferguson transferred, it left Worley as the heavy favorite to win the job.

    Dobbs took over for Worley last year and was in over his head, being thrust into action before he was ready. While he was inconsistent and needs to work on his post-snap awareness, Dobbs was the best player on the field in the Orange and White Game.

    He was 6-of-9 for 199 yards and three touchdowns and looked like he'd kicked it up a notch on the ground as well. They'll battle it out to start the Utah State game.

    Any other year, the quarterbacks would be further down this list. But with all the defensive questions, they land at No. 4. Still, they remain the biggest offensive question mark.

    The Vols have so many young weapons that it's exciting. They just have to find somebody to consistently get them the football.

3. Tight Ends

7 of 9

    Daniel Helm is one of two freshmen tight ends who figure to be a big part of Tennessee's 2014 offense.
    Daniel Helm is one of two freshmen tight ends who figure to be a big part of Tennessee's 2014 offense.Credit: 247Sports

    Top Players - Ethan Wolf, Daniel Helm

    Question Marks - Brendan Downs, A.J. Branisel, Alex Ellis, Woody Quinn

    Why They're Ranked Here

    How can a team have two unproven freshmen as "top players?" Easy. Wolf and Helm impressed everybody this spring.

    Wolf was called a "complete tight end" by position coach Mark Elder, who also told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan this spring (subscription required):

    He's got the ability to be physical, block at the point of attack and handle a defensive end one-on-one. I think he's a threat in the pass game. He's gone out and made some plays, getting open, catching the ball, so we like what he brings to the table. He can do everything that we need him to do, as far as lining up as a tight end, off the ball as, like, an H-back position or flexing out as a receiver and going out and being a playmaker out there as well. I really like what I see from him in those regards. I think that he'll be successful in every aspect of our offense.

    Those are strong words for somebody who hadn't been on campus long. Elder had good things to say about Helm in the article as well, and the athletic tight end was one of the most heavily recruited in the nation who got better as the spring matured.

    So, they'll help considerably while Downs and Branisel are recovering from injuries. Ellis is an underrated commodity as well. UT went from really struggling at the position a season ago to having the potential to be really strong there.

2. Running Backs

8 of 9

    Jalen Hurd will attempt to build off a strong spring and surge into feature back status as a freshman at UT.
    Jalen Hurd will attempt to build off a strong spring and surge into feature back status as a freshman at UT.Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Top Players - Marlin Lane, Jalen Hurd

    Question Marks - Devrin Young, Derrell Scott, Treyvon Paulk

    Why They're Ranked Here

    On a team without many real proven "strengths" at this point of the offseason, there is a real sense of comfort surrounding UT's running back situation.

    Lane was praised all spring, working through an injury and looking strong running the football. Butch Jones told the Associated Press' Steve Megargee that Lane "has been a warrior for us."

    That is a long way from a year ago, when Lane's future was uncertain after an indefinite suspension from the Vols. He worked his way back, ran for more than 500 yards last season and has emerged as a leader entering his senior year. 

    The Daytona Beach, Florida product always had the ability and shiftiness to be a complete SEC runner, and he always hit the hole at the point of attack better than former backfield mate Rajion Neal. But Lane just never stayed committed. Now, it appears he has really grown in that area.

    He'd better keep playing at a high level, because Hurd is right behind him on the depth chart.

    The freshman from Hendersonville lived up to the hype this spring and is a big, fast weapon who can do anything with the football. He will play a lot right away.

    Running backs coach Robert Gillespie said last week Hurd has really learned pass protection quickly as well, according to UT's official football Twitter account.

    Throw in talented newcomers Scott and Paulk and veteran jitterbug Young, and UT could have a really productive stable of runners.

1. Wide Receivers

9 of 9

    USA TODAY Sports

    Top Players - Marquez North, Josh Malone, Von Pearson

    Question Marks - Pig Howard, Jason Croom, Josh Smith, Cody Blanc, Jacob Carter, Johnathon Johnson, Vic Wharton, Ryan Jenkins

    Why They're Ranked Here

    There are untapped resources throughout Tennessee's talented group of receivers, but the potential for greatness is limitless.

    At 6'4", 221 pounds, North has the size, speed, work ethic and talent to take the next step toward superstardom in 2014. A year into the system and just his overall development after rarely playing receiver in high school will help tremendously. So will being able to develop a rapport with his quarterback.

    First-year players Malone and Pearson enjoyed breakout springs, and Malone had a coming-out party of sorts in the spring finale.

    Throw in players with the ability to improve dramatically from a season ago like Croom, Smith and Johnson, and the Vols appear loaded at the position.

    If Howard returns from a bizarre hiatus from the team as he is attempting to do, the junior slot receiver will only provide more quality depth a season removed from leading the team in receptions.

    Last year, Howard was a player with enough talent to get the call with the ball in his hands at crunch time.

    There aren't any guarantees throughout a UT roster pocked with holes and tattooed with talent but too young to promise greatness. But receiver is by far the deepest with potential elite SEC playmakers.

    If the Vols get stellar quarterback play, this group will thrive, and UT's offense will produce some serious points.

    All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports Composite.

    Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Brad on Twitter here: