Biggest Storylines Heading into Tennessee Fall Camp
One of the most intriguing University of Tennessee football seasons in recent memory will see its first chapter written Friday as coach Butch Jones' class of 32 newcomers steps onto the field together for the first time.
Because of all the newness and uncertainty, the story of this season will be rich with plot twists.
As Jones embarks on his second season as UT coach, he could be complaining about having to restock the shelf on Rocky Top. Instead, he sees opportunity.
"I like it," Jones said at SEC media days, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Patrick Brown. "They sit there, they're eager, they listen to every word you say. They have no preconceived notions on anything. They just want more. They want to learn. They're hungry."
A deeper dive into the roster shows the Vols are even greener than the huge class indicates. Brown noted 51 UT players are either in their first or second seasons, and just 11 players have 10 or more starts.
While that much youth could be the key ingredient for a long season, the Vols haven't exactly lit the world on fire in recent years. Perhaps that's why Jones seems a little bit invigorated.
He hasn't settled on a quarterback, has enough questions along the lines of scrimmage to make the most optimistic coaches squirm and has a team chock-full of unknowns.
But the roster flip the past two seasons means this is Jones' team, and everybody is eager to see how it'll look. So, let's take a look at the top storylines entering the 2014 season.
Can Anybody Become the Clear-Cut Man at Quarterback?
Injuries decimated Tennessee's quarterbacks a season ago as three of the four scholarship signal-callers—Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman and Riley Ferguson—were hurt for lengthy periods of time.
But that isn't the only reason why the Vols' quarterback position was a revolving door.
Even before the injuries, Peterman replaced Worley, who regained the job after the former struggled miserably against Florida. When Worley was lost for the season, Joshua Dobbs took over out of necessity before he was ready for SEC action.
Simply put: Nobody seized control of the job.
Now, after a spring-long, four-man free-for-all, the transfer of Ferguson and an offseason of film study and weight room work, Tennessee's starting quarterback spot is still open.
That has to change. Soon.
Jones told the throng at SEC media days last week, according to The Daily Times' Grant Ramey, one positive byproduct of the rotating quarterbacks is now the three candidates have starting experience:
It's the overall maturation at that position. Look at all three individuals, probably gained the greatest value you can gain last year, in terms of they all have live game repetitions. You can't put a price tag on that. I'm as encouraged and optimistic at that position as anyone.
That has to translate quickly. Worley is probably the favorite to win the job based on his experience and consistency, but given UT's shaky offensive line situation, Dobbs' mobility is attractive.
With all the talent at the skill positions, Jones just has to find somebody as soon as possible to get everyone on the same page. It would be best if one of the Vols' quarterbacks made that an easy decision.
Is Jalen Hurd a Game-Changing Talent?
Tennessee hasn't had a game-breaking, all-world talent at running back or quarterback in a long, long time. Considering those are the two positions that get the most offensive touches, it certainly hasn't helped matters during the Vols' long lull.
At 6'3", 221 pounds, freshman tailback Jalen Hurd appears to have that long-missing elite skill set.
Nothing against senior Marlin Lane, who has emerged as a leader this offseason and appears poised to take a big leap forward, but Hurd can change games. He has the speed to leave defenders in the dust and the size to get tough yards between the tackles.
Tennessee's coaches have heaped praise on the Hendersonville, Tennessee, native.
"He has a natural ability that you can't coach," running backs coach Robert Gillespie told The Tennessean.
Defensive coordinator John Jancek told Volquest's John Brice (subscription required) back in the spring:
He's done some really good things. He's a big back, that's the first thing. And he has the ability to stop and start very quickly, which is a unique skill-set for a player of his size. Shoot, I'm glad he's on our team. Keep the chains moving Jalen.
Frilly words are nice. But can Hurd be the kind of player who takes over games and masks the glaring ailments of a team full of youth when he has never played a college down himself?
Perhaps it's heaping too high expectations on Hurd to anoint him at this early juncture, but given Tennessee's reliance on freshmen all over the field this year, he'll have ample opportunities.
The Vols need for Lane to be a consistent, steady force, but Hurd will be looked upon as a home run hitter. If he can live up to those lofty expectations, it could add an important dimension to Tennessee's offense.
Players Must Emerge Along the Lines of Scrimmage
Perhaps the most harrowing comment from Butch Jones at SEC media days came when he told a room full of media members that UT was the only team in the country that must replace its entire offensive and defensive line.
That's not a misprint either.
Not one of the Vols' regular starters return on either line of scrimmage.
On one hand, it's going to be nearly impossible to replace some of those talented players, chiefly on the offensive line. On the other, the Vols haven't had a winning season since 2009, and those guys underachieved throughout their careers.
Defensively, Tennessee didn't lose a single playmaker. So, even though it's a major overhaul, it won't be a major undertaking.
If the Vols are going to surprise, they'll have to get reliable play on both lines of scrimmage as well as find some stars along the way.
On offense, JUCO transfer offensive tackle Dontavius Blair lost his starting spot to a former walk-on (Jacob Gilliam) during his first spring, but he has the size and talent to be an elite player at left tackle. True freshman Coleman Thomas needs to play beyond his years at right tackle, and UT must get consistency along the interior of the line.
Curt Maggitt and Corey Vereen should settle along the defensive front and boost a pass rush that has been among the league's bottom two in each of the past three seasons. But at tackle, questions abound.
Trevarris Saulsberry missed most of last season and all of spring practice and has to stay healthy. High school teammate Jordan Williams needs a splash senior season to close his career, and the duo of Danny O'Brien and Owen Williams needs to impress.
The Vols recruited a bevy of highly rated linemen such as Dewayne Hendrix, Derek Barnett, Michael Sawyers, Dimarya Mixon and Joe Henderson, but can they become stars quickly at one of the most difficult positions to transition from high school to college?
They don't have a choice. If UT is going to be better than many think, it has to find some young stars on both sides of the trenches.
Can Curt Maggitt Inspire a Downtrodden D?
Before injuries robbed him of more than a year of football, Tennessee linebacker Curt Maggitt looked like he was on his way to being a star.
The way he ran around the football field, harassed quarterbacks and made plays hearkened back to legendary UT outside linebackers like Leonard Little, Raynoch Thompson and Jerod Mayo.
Then, after turf toe hobbled him for much of 2012, he tore his ACL in November of that season against Missouri and missed all last year. He returned this past spring as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker and performed well.
To hear Butch Jones talk about the redshirt junior, you'd believe Maggitt was the team's superstar. In actuality, Maggitt has never played a down for Jones.
According to The Tennessean's Nick Cole, Jones said:
Being able to get him back on the grass for our football team—he's going to be a presence. He demands respect. He’s accountable to his teammates. So to be able to have his voice on the field when we’re in the battles is going to be critical in us moving forward.
While Maggitt shook off rust and drew praise this spring, it remains to be seen if he can continue to build upon his dynamic potential or if the knee injury has robbed him of any quickness.
Given that Maggitt is expected to be moved around throughout the first two levels of UT's revamped defense, the question must be raised about whether he can be as effective bouncing around to different positions.
His return to dominance is essential to the Vols' success on that side of the ball. ESPN.com writer Jeff Barlis believes Maggitt is UT's X-factor, and he's right.
While the "rah-rah" stuff can be important, Tennessee needs Maggitt's leadership to translate into big plays. Before his injury, the 6'3", 244-pound defender had the talent and ability to play a long time in the NFL.
If he's still that kind of player, the Vols will get an indescribable boost on defense.
Team Speed Must Improve, Even at the Expense of Experience
There are question marks and holes all over defensive coordinator John Jancek's unit, but the vast majority of the worries rotate around the same axis:
A lack of team speed.
In 2013, the Vols looked like they were running in quicksand against teams with superior talent such as Oregon, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri. Offensive coordinators on UT's schedule who were smart enough to exploit the Vols' lack of team speed did it.
Over and over and over.
This year, Tennessee cannot afford to get consistently demoralized on the perimeter. It's the biggest question mark facing this team, and it's one that must be addressed regardless of how many freshmen Butch Jones has to put on the field.
Athletes such as Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Dillon Bates, Evan Berry, Emmanuel Moseley, Todd Kelly Jr., Chris Weatherd and Cortez McDowell were recruited the past two seasons to upgrade agility in the back seven. The Vols also have enough bodies along the defensive front now to mix and match packages to get more athleticism on the field.
The pieces are there, even if they're young.
Now, Jancek has to prove his SEC chops and find the right concoction to stop league offenses. At the very least, the Vols have to improve dramatically from the 29 points and 418.4 yards per game they allowed a year ago.
Players like LaDarrell McNeil and Justin Coleman are going to be in dogfights for their jobs this fall, and that can do nothing but strengthen UT's entire defense. The Vols are going to have to match up personnel more than they did last year, and they're going to have to rely on some freshmen in the process.
Seeds of a Team-Mentality Change Must Grow
Just as winning can become contagious, losing is an epidemic that can spread throughout a program and take years to cure.
Tennessee has to find a way to reverse a culture of losing.
Getting some new blood flowing on the Hill is the best way to do that, and among those 32 newcomers are six legacy players who have family ties to a program steeped in tradition. They'll have an even bigger burden to get UT straightened out.
Elliott Berry, the son of James and brother of Eric Berry who could play either defensive back or linebacker at UT, told The Daily Beacon's Nathanael Rutherford: "I feel like Tennessee has always been close to all of our hearts. The fact that we're in the position to have the opportunity to put Tennessee back at the top is a big deal."
The Vols took a major step forward a year ago in upsetting South Carolina two weeks after nearly beating Georgia in Neyland Stadium. But UT couldn't parlay what could have been a program-defining signature win into a bowl berth, so it lost a bit of its luster.
At least now, several players on the roster have been a part of winning a key game. Now, they've got to hope an infusion of talent and a nice mixture of instate players and legacies will help the Vols take the next logical step: a postseason appearance.
Legacy linebacker Dillon Bates told Rutherford getting UT back to its winning ways is an idea shared throughout the newcomers: "It's everybody's goal to bring back Tennessee to where it's supposed to be. It will happen. It's just a matter of time of us getting together and doing everything we can to help us this season."
All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports Composite. All statistics gathered from UTSports.com and roster information taken from UTSports as well. Observations from the spring were gathered firsthand, unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:
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