Tennessee Football: Ranking Top 10 Vols Heading into 2014 Season
College football games are often won and lost based on exceptional performances by a handful of players, and this list ranks the 10 top playmakers on the Tennessee Volunteers roster.
Although second-year Tennessee head coach Butch Jones stocked the cupboard full of talent with the 2014 recruiting class, the jury is still out on the freshmen and junior college transfers who joined the team in January and June.
It's likely that many of those newcomers will prove themselves on the field in the coming weeks and months, but until they actually experience a live snap in a game, they're not eligible to be ranked just yet.
Instead, this list ranks the top 10 returning players on the Tennessee roster who are battle-tested and known assets for the team. It's up to these veterans to beat the odds and score an upset or two along the way to secure the Vols' first bowl berth since 2010.
10. Jason Croom
On paper, redshirt sophomore Jason Croom should be a nightmare for any opposing defensive back to cover. Listed on Tennessee's official roster at 6'5" and 243 pounds, Croom has prototypical NFL wide receiver size.
However, he hasn't quite been able to produce the yardage and touchdowns for Tennessee's offense that his height and weight advantage should afford him. Croom is aware of that, as he told 247Sports' Wes Rucker he plans on being more physical this season.
Croom had 18 catches for 263 yards and two touchdowns in 2013—one an impressive corner end-zone grab against Oregon and the other a juggling catch snatched right out of the hands of a Kentucky defensive back in the Vols' final game of the season.
With two full seasons of practice and one season of game experience in his repertoire, Croom is poised to finally live up to his huge potential in 2014 as he challenges for a starting role.
9. Corey Vereen
Corey Vereen may be the long-awaited answer Tennessee has been looking for when it comes to pressuring opposing quarterbacks and generating negative yardage.
Vereen was a major bright spot in the 2013 recruiting class. His instincts and knack for getting into the backfield meant he saw action on the field early and often as a freshman last season.
Now, with another year of conditioning and playbook experience under his belt, Vereen should start at defensive end and breathe new life into one of the SEC"s most ho-hum pass rushes in recent years.
8. Justin Worley
Senior quarterback Justin Worley isn't expected to break any records this year or carve up SEC defenses with any regularity.
What he is expected to do, however, is win ballgames. And based on his performances in two of Tennessee's most complete games last season against Georgia and South Carolina, it appears that he's the best man for the job.
No matter his talent level or ceiling, there are certain attributes that are difficult to replace in senior quarterbacks like Worley. His experience, leadership and command of the playbook give him the respect of his teammates and the ability to run an overall smoother and more effective offense than Nathan Peterman and Joshua Dobbs.
Worley is the first Tennessee quarterback to beat a ranked team since Jonathan Crompton in 2009, but he has several opportunities to add to his tally before he hangs up his orange and white jersey for the last time.
7. Pig Howard
At one point during spring practices, it appeared that junior wide receiver Pig Howard would never take the field as a Tennessee Vol again.
The importance of his return to the team just in time for summer camp can't be understated. Howard may not be the most hyped player on the Vols roster, but he is the most experienced wide receiver in a unit that is full of new faces. It certainly doesn't hurt that he possess excellent speed either.
Although Howard's untimely fumble through the end zone against Georgia and block-in-the-back penalty against Vanderbilt appeared to cost the Vols a chance to become bowl-eligible last season, his production at wide receiver is part of the reason they were in position to win those games in the first place.
Howard's presence on the field and sidelines not only gives Tennessee another dynamic playmaker; it also means the newcomers like Josh Malone and Von Pearson have another veteran to look up to and learn from throughout the season.
6. Marlin Lane
Marlin Lane's career at Tennessee feels like it just began, but in actuality, he's a senior this year with one last chance to make a name for himself on the Hill.
After playing backup to Rajion Neal for three seasons (and occasionally filling in for Neal when he was sidelined by injuries), Lane is the clear-cut starter at tailback in 2014.
Freshman Jalen Hurd has pushed him throughout spring and summer practices, which undoubtedly has had a positive impact on Lane's leadership and focus for the upcoming season.
In addition, the fact that Lane has held off the ultra-talented Hurd, who possesses elite size and strength, means Vols fans shouldn't be surprised to see him turn in a season similar to Montario Hardesty's final year on the Hill in 2009.
5. Curt Maggitt
The last time Vols fans got a glimpse of a truly healthy Curt Maggitt, he was wreaking havoc on NC State's offensive line and forcing a safety after closing in on a fleeing Mike Glennon.
That was August 31, 2012, exactly two years before the Vols kick off against Utah State next week.
Since then, Maggitt has battled turf toe, a torn anterior cruciate ligament that caused him to miss the entire 2013 season and a recent ankle injury that sidelined him for a week of summer camp.
But now that Maggitt appears to be healthy, the Vols defense will rely on his aggressiveness and disruption heavily at two positions: defensive end and linebacker.
If he can bring the same speed and ability to force his way into the backfield that he showed early in his career, he'll be one of the biggest defensive assets for Tennessee in 2014.
4. Cam Sutton
Cam Sutton emerged out of nowhere to become one of Tennessee's most important defensive weapons last season.
The highlight of his season came when he leaped into the air to pick off a pass from South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw. That pick turned the tide of the game and was the only interception thrown by Shaw all year.
Although Sutton is only a sophomore, he is already in the conversation as one of the SEC's top cornerbacks. This season is an opportunity for him to not only raise his standing in the league as a shutdown corner, but also help mentor freshman Emmanuel Moseley and walk-on Michael Williams.
3. Brian Randolph
If there's one word to describe redshirt junior safety Brian Randolph, it's consistency.
Despite tearing his anterior cruciate ligament against the Florida Gators in 2012, Randolph bounced back in 2013 to become one of Tennessee's most reliable players in the defensive backfield.
In fact, the lack of speed and athleticism in the Vols secondary became even more evident when Randolph made plays, as he often proved he was one of the team's sole true SEC-caliber defensive backs.
Randolph also has a reputation for clutch plays, as he picked off South Alabama's quarterback in the waning seconds of the game to prevent overtime last season.
Tennessee will need both his physical talents and his cool under pressure to make a bowl game in 2014.
2. A.J. Johnson
When middle linebacker A.J. Johnson decided to return to Tennessee for his senior season, the Vols' struggling defense got a huge boost.
Not only is Johnson the quarterback of the defense, but he's also one of the team's best players. In fact, Johnson was recently named to the first team of the 2014 Pre-Season Coaches All-SEC Team, according to All For Tennessee's Zach Ragan.
Johnson is a prolific tackler, racking up 324 tackles during his career so far at Tennessee.
This season, Johnson will add to that number significantly. More importantly, the plethora of young faces in the Tennessee defense will follow his lead on the field to prevent unnecessary penalties and busted coverages.
1. Marquez North
Tennessee is known as Wide Receiver U, and Marquez North embodies everything about that label.
His potential for excelling at the position is so sky-high that in a conference full of outstanding wide receivers, he was recently selected to the All-SEC third team, despite catching only a single touchdown pass last season.
Not only is North the Vols' best athlete, but he also has excellent hands as a wide receiver. He completed multiple circus-like catches last season, including the now famous facemask catch against South Carolina to set up the game-winning field goal.
Although Tennessee upgraded the wide receiver position with players like Josh Malone, Von Pearson and Vic Wharton during the offseason, North is unquestionably the leader of the group.
And because that unit is so talented and deep, opposing defenses will have to pick their poison, giving North plenty of room and opportunity to establish himself as one of the top wide receivers in the SEC.