With only snippets of Tennessee football practices open to the media, fans are left to interpret coach Butch Jones' coachspeak and alternating mood swings.
Throughout week two of fall drills, his interviews have seemed a shade less surly than they were a week ago as he has been quicker to hand out praise to his players. Then, he'll throw out a downer like his post-scrimmage thoughts Wednesday night.
According to UTSports.com's official transcript, Jones said:
As a whole, I didn't like our approach, I thought we lacked intensity, gave up way too many big plays defensively; I didn't think we came to play defensively. [Also] too many pre-snap penalties on offense. ... Some individuals now are starting to distance themselves from the pack, so we will go back tonight, we will grade the film and we will start to define people's roles on this football team in moving forward.
With just a bit more than two weeks left until UT kicks off against Utah State, the Vols have a long way to go. But they've seemingly made strides in solidifying roles and identifying a handful of youngsters who can help right away.
Now that they've named a starting quarterback in Justin Worley (per GoVols247's Wes Rucker), the team can get acclimated to him, and the offense can develop a comfort level before the Aggies roll into town.
Even though that's a big question mark out of the way, numerous others remain. Let's take a look at the biggest news from the past week on the Vols' practice field.
Wolfing Down the Reps
Anybody wondering aloud about the importance of quality tight end play in Jones' offense need not look any further than his final season at Cincinnati.
Travis Kelce led the Big East co-champion Bearcats with 45 catches for 722 yards and eight touchdowns.
So when the Vols experienced atrocious play from the position a season ago, it had a direct effect on the offense. Tight end is one of those areas where quality is crucial in Jones' power-spread scheme, so UT went out and recruited two potential immediate-impact players in Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm.
Thus far, former 247 composite 3-star Wolf looks like one of the biggest surprises of the class. The 6'5", 240-pound tight end has earned some first-team reps along with Alex Ellis and continued to draw praise from Jones.
"Been really, really pleased with Ethan Wolf," Jones told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required). "I think Ethan Wolf continues to get better and better and better."
That's not just lip service from the top man either. Most of the folks who've witnessed practices have seen the immense all-around ability Wolf has shown. Not only can he be a force in the run game because of his size and blocking ability, but he also has used his athleticism to add a wrinkle to the passing game.
Volquest.com owner Brent Hubbs (subscription required) noted Wolf as his mid-camp surprise, stating:
I liked Wolf in the spring, but in my mind, he's really taken off this summer and is having a fabulous camp. I honestly expected his role this season to be more of just an in-line blocker in two tight end sets, but he has flashed the ability to get open in the pass game. The athleticism and agility he's shown in fall camp have been really impressive. And to go with that, he's been extremely consistent on the practice field every day. … He's making the tight end position dramatically different than it was a year ago.
Even Helm, who was the higher-rated of the two tight ends, conceded Wolf is farther along in his development. Both will be huge parts of the future, but Wolf will thrive right now.
Whether or not Wolf starts won't have any bearing on his impact to the offense. He is one of the two freshmen (along with right tackle Coleman Thomas) who don't necessarily get lumped in with all the excitement and anticipation surrounding guys like Jalen Hurd or Josh Malone.
But they'll be just as important to the success of the 2014 Vols as anybody.
Malone Snaps Out of Funk
Malone answers the phone when the lights come on.
If that's how things are going to be this season for the Vols' elite 6'3", 204-pound freshman receiver, it's better than the alternative.
The first couple weeks of practice haven't been kind to the Gallatin, Tennessee, native as he struggled to take another step forward following an electrifying Orange and White Game this past spring that saw him score three touchdowns.
But in the midst of a game environment during the Vols' second full scrimmage Thursday night, Malone woke up. Statistics were not released for the practice, but he reportedly flashed some of the skills that made him one of the most hotly recruited prospects in the Southeast a season ago.
It's going to be extremely difficult for Malone to win a starting job with Marquez North entrenched at one outside spot, sophomore Josh Smith playing so well and Von Pearson, Pig Howard and Johnathon Johnson battling for reps in the slot.
But there is plenty of playing time to be had. The Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown reported the Vols "will rotate heavily at receiver, and wideouts coach Zach Azzanni likes to play a handful of guys."
Malone is certain to be one of those guys. He's too talented to keep off the field. But his performance in practice will have a direct effect on the confidence coaches have in his ability to play at a high level, even if he does play his best on the big stage.
While Curt Is Hurt, Barnett Reaps Rewards
Tennessee defensive end and team leader Curt Maggitt is currently hobbled by a "minor, lower-leg injury," according to Rucker, that could keep him out for a few practices.
That's bad news for the Vols, but a silver lining is freshman Derek Barnett getting repetitions with the first-team defense.
The 6'3", 267-pound defensive end trotted out as a starter with Maggitt sidelined, according to Volquest.com's Brent Hubbs and Grant Ramey (subscription required). Though the Vols want to get their star junior back as soon as possible, they're developing some much-needed depth along the front.
Barnett continues a torrid camp that will wind up with him firmly entrenched in the defensive line rotation. While he'll surely take some lumps in his first year, he'll be an anchor in the trenches throughout his UT career.
As for Maggitt, nobody believes the injury is serious. He told Volquest.com's Hubbs and Lewis Thursday night, "I'm good. I appreciate it. I'm all good," before saying he was taking things "one day at a time."
Updates on Tennessee's Top Position Battles
Jones knows everybody wanted to know who was going to be the Vols quarterback prior to Thursday's naming of Worley as the starter.
But UT's coach is equally concerned about another position—kicker.
Last season, Michael Palardy held all three kicking responsibilities for the Vols and was arguably the team's MVP. This fall, there have been flashes from all three kicking candidates, but nobody has taken the job.
Jones told Callahan that sophomore George Bullock leads true freshman Aaron Medley in the race right now.
At outside linebacker, everybody is talking about UT legacy and true freshman Dillon Bates, but it's going to be extremely difficult for him to unseat Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
In GoVols247 writer Rucker's "Five on the Rise" article, he notes of JRM:
The former safety from Clarksville, Tenn., has beefed up to 230 pounds and has taken great strides as a player and leader, according to his coaches and teammates. Tennessee's special-teams dynamo of 2013 looks like a potentially dynamic component of Tennessee’s 2014 defense.
The Vols needed a quarterback to step up and take control of the starting job. Once Worley finally did, naming him the starter was a no-brainer.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told Volquest.com assistant editor John Brice (subscription required) just how well Worley had been playing recently: "The body of work over the long-term is important, but we want to know who is playing his best football right now. Justin is hitting on all cylinders right now. So we're excited about that."
Roundup from Rocky Top (News and Notes)
The Vols are holding their only open practice Saturday night in Neyland Stadium, and the coaching staff wants to eclipse the 39,000 or so fans they had for last year's event.
UT football's official Twitter account has been tweeting out reminders all week.
Under Jones, it's a tradition that the newcomers all have a black stripe on their helmets that is removed once they earn that privilege with their play.
This week, the older Vols removed stripes from the helmets of Barnett, Wolf, running back Jalen Hurd and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, according to The Daily Times' Grant Ramey. All are expected to start or at least be major contributors this season.
A freshman who isn't talked about much but is quietly having a strong camp is Jashon Robertson. The Nashville native and long-time Vanderbilt commit flipped to UT after James Franklin left for Penn State, and he has taken his new position by storm.
Less than a week into practice, the Vols coaches moved Robertson from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and he has excelled thus far. Offensive line coach Don Mahoney told GoVols247's Callahan: "I’m really, really excited about his future. I mean, he’s a lot more mature than his classification is. We’re going to keep pushing and demanding, and he keeps accepting the challenges."
All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports composite rankings. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:
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