The Tennessee Volunteers are coming off of their worst four-season stretch in program history. Thankfully, second-year head coach Butch Jones‘ Vols squad has a completely new identity, with an apparel switch from Adidas to Nike just one of the many rebranding efforts put forth to reinvigorate a product gone stale.
Last season’s 5-7 record featured a promising high in a two-point win over the South Carolina Gamecocks, but plenty of lows in the form of close, heart-wrenching losses and demoralizing blowouts as well. Although the 2014 season figures to offer a bit of the same roller coaster ride, Vols fans should be able to expect at least a couple more highs.
That being said, let’s examine Tennessee’s offense, defense and schedule for 2014.
A four-horse quarterback competition got a little clearer this spring, but not because of the emergence of a standout option. Promising candidate Riley Ferguson departed the program in May, leaving the still-unsolved battle for the starting job favoring senior Justin Worley, who didn’t blow anyone away, but nonetheless had a solid spring game.
Worley is clearly the most game-ready player under center, but sophomore Joshua Dobbs could unseat him after showing signs of a solid future with a four-touchdown spring game performance — even if it was mostly against the second-team defense.
Finding a reliable quarterback, however, won’t even matter if Tennessee cannot immediately reload on its offensive line, where it must replace all five of its starters from 2013.
Senior Marlin Lane (534 yards) returns in the backfield after posting consecutive seasons with 5.0-plus YPC. The most exciting prospect, though, will be whether incoming five-star freshman Jalen Hurd can immediately contribute after a solid spring. Another frosh, Derrell Scott, could also see time as a change-of-pace back.
Marquez North, a sophomore, is the team’s leading returning receiver after snagging 38 passes for 496 yards in 2013, but an extra year of experience will certainly show for North and fellow sophomores Jason Croom (18 receptions for 269 yards) and Josh Smith (12 for 182) on the outside.
Pig Howard‘s (44 receptions for 388 yards) spring game absence gave way for JUCO transfer Von Pearson to claim the starting spot in the slot. Jones’ highly-regarded freshman class should also produce instant options in five-star receiver Josh Malone and tight ends Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf, who filled in nicely while sophomore A.J. Branisel and senior Brendan Downs dealt with injuries.
A major question mark will be the play of Tennessee’s lines, as the defensive front is also basically a completely new group. JUCO transfer DT Owen Williams will be another player who can fill in and play, but the other projected starter, sophomore Danny O’Brien, is unproven. Senior Jordan Williams (18 tackles) and sophomore Corey Vereen return to start at end and in the hybrid rush-end spot, respectively.
Senior A.J. Johnson (106 tackles, 8.5 for loss) is the only returning starter from the front seven, but could carry the unit as an all-conference pick. He will be joined by strong side backer Jalen Reeves-Maybin and junior Curt Maggitt, who is currently pegged for the weak side, but could get pushed out by younger players into becoming another rush end.
The Vols’ secondary will be the defense’s bright spot, as all four starters and most of the two-deep returns. Sophomore Cam Sutton (39 tackles, two interceptions) is a trendy pick for breakout performer.
Tennessee will have a crucial opener against the Utah State Aggies, who are a legitimate contender to win the Mountain West. With the way the Volunteers’ schedule looks, that game looks like a must-win.
The Vols have their hands full with three-game stretches against the Sooners, Bulldogs and Florida Gators and the Rebels, Crimson Tide and Gamecocks. If they steal two wins from those six games and take care of business in their first two games, a six or seven-win season will be likely with a manageable back stretch of games, minus the matchup with the Missouri Tigers.
Although it may not appear to be a big improvement from 2013, winning an extra one or two games against this schedule with a team thin on experience on both lines will be a major accomplishment.