We've seen the faxes come in, and we've examined how the talent coming in compares to the talent from last year. But what is the team actually going to look like? How will the 2014 class blend with the players already on campus? For 2014, the most likely scenario is that returning players will lock down the vast majority of the starting positions and that a couple JUCOs or exceptional freshmen will slot in here and there. We'll continue talking about that through the spring, summer, and fall.
But 2014 will be a young team, with only a modestly-sized and modestly-talented senior class and with many of the biggest talents being freshmen. It's a team that will hopefully make some strides, but it's not likely to be a team that makes a giant leap forward. 2015, on the other hand? From a Tennessee perspective, 2015 has been the year of promise since Butch Jones took over. Is he on track to live up to that promise? Let's take an early look.
WAY TOO EARLY PROJECTED 2015 OFFENSE
QB: Riley Ferugson, redshirt sophomore. (Also in the mix: junior Josh Dobbs)
RB: Jalen Hurd, sophomore. (Also in the mix: sophomore Derrell Scott)
WR: Marquez North, junior.
WR: Josh Malone, sophomore. (Also in the mix: senior Von Pearson)
Slot: Pig Howard, senior.
TE: Daniel Helm, sophomore.
LT: Dontavius Blair, senior.
LG: Marcus Jackson, redshirt senior.
C: Mack Crowder, redshirt senior.
RG: Dylan Wiesman, junior.
RT: Kyler Kerbyson, redshirt senior.
As you can see, that's a lot of sophomores at the skill positions and a lot of seniors on the line. Which is a lot better than the other way around. Linemen usually take longer to mature than skill players, not to mention being hard to project. Counting on a lot of 2014 signees to start in 2015 on the offensive line would be a dicey proposition at best. Counting on them to start at running back or receiver? Well, when you're pulling in five-star talents like Jalen Hurd and Josh Malone, you'd be disappointed if they aren't making waves by their second year in the program.
At the skill positions, a lot depends on the quarterback. With no one in the 2014 class, Ferguson or Dobbs needs to take a big step forward, or else the Vols will be hoping a true freshman quarterback can lead them in 2015. And that's a scary thought. But if one of the two can grab hold of the starting position, they should have plenty of weapons at their disposal. With a pair of four-star running backs in the fold, it's reasonable to assume that at least one of them will emerge as a solid starter in 2015, with the other joining Treyvon Paulk and whoever signs in 2015 in providing depth. In the most positive (realistic) scenario, Hurd or Scott breaks out as a game-changing running back and the relief man is still at the level of a solid SEC starter. But even if things don't work out that well, the starter at running back should still be solid.
And it's hard to imagine the 2015 receiving corps being anything other than excellent. Marquez North is a relatively known quantity after one year, and he appears well on his way to being an SEC #1. Josh Malone is rated even higher out of high school than North was and should provide the Vols with a deadly one-two punch on the outside, with senior Von Pearson--himself a highly rated recruit--rotating in heavily. Players who started in 2013, like Josh Smith and Jason Croom, could easily see themselves fourth or fifth on the depth chart. Pig Howard will be a senior and should start in the slot. He showed flashes of ability as a sophomore, and being the third or fourth threat on the field should give him more space to operate. Behind him may be a bit of an unknown, with Ryan Jenkins, Vic Wharton, and possibly Evan Berry throwing their hats into the ring. At tight end, big things are expected from Daniel Helm.
The offensive line joins quarterback as the biggest question about the 2015 offense. It should be senior-laden in 2015, but will the seniors be good? Crowder and Kerbyson have spent three years developing behind James Stone and Ja'Wuan James. Will they be ready to seize their moment? Does Dylan Wiesman deliver on the promise he showed in his first camp? Will Blair slot in smoothly at left tackle, as he is projected to do? Will there be enough depth? Behind the projected starters are a mess of 2013 and 2014 recruits: Brett Kendrick, Joe Sanders, Coleman Thomas, Ray Raulerson, Jashon Robertson. Will enough of those second and third year players develop in order to provide depth? A lot of questions, and for now, few answers.
But if the offensive line and quarterback questions are answered positively, Tennessee could be very good on offense in 2015, despite the youth at the skill positions. If not, things could get interesting, in a bad way. The talent at the skill positions will deliver flashes of brilliance, but they won't deliver consistently without consistent throwing and blocking.
WAY TOO EARLY PROJECTED 2015 DEFENSE
DE: Corey Vereen, junior.
DT: Trevarris Saulsberry, redshirt senior.
DT: Owen Williams, senior. (Also in the mix: redshirt junior Danny O'Brien, redshirt sophomore Jason Carr, sophomore Charles Mosley, sophomore Michael Sawyers)
DE: Dewayne Hendrix, sophomore. (Also in the mix: sophomore Derek Barnett, sophomore Dimarya Mixon)
OLB: Curt Maggitt, senior.
MLB: Gavin Bryant, sophomore. (Also in the mix: sophomore Jakob Johnson)
OLB: Dillon Bates, sophomore. (Also in the mix: senior Chris Weatherd, junior Jalen Reeves-Maybin)
CB: Cameron Sutton, junior.
CB: D'Andre Payne, sophomore. (Also in the mix: junior Malik Foreman, sophomore Evan Berry)
S: Brian Randolph, redshirt senior.
S: Todd Kelly Jr., sophomore. (Also in the mix: senior LaDarrell McNeil, sophomore Cortez McDowell)
Nickel: RaShaan Gaulden, sophomore. (Also in the mix: junior Devaun Swafford)
Well, you tell me. Unlike at receiver, it's hard to count on any of the defensive recruits wresting jobs from incumbents by their second years, although a few certainly have the talent to do so. But unlike at offensive line, few of the defensive positions have current sophomores or juniors who are widely anticipated to take over their positions in the next season or two. Most of the defense is impossible to project from this far out--just throw a bunch of players into a blender and see what happens. But there will be no lack of talent, if it can be developed quickly enough to make a difference.
On the line, there is one position that I feel confident in projecting. Corey Vereen, a junior in 2015, was a revelation as a freshman and has the inside track on pass-rushing end position, although LaTroy Lewis and Joe Henderson will fight for the job, as may Curt Maggitt if he's seen better as a down-lineman than an OLB. I suspect that Vereen and the youth of the linebackers will keep Maggitt off the line if possible. At the other end position, it looks like three sophomores will battle for the starting job. Dewayne Hendrix is the highest rated, but it's impossible to predict who will come out on top and how good they will be as sophomores.
In the middle, the coaches seem high on Trevarris Saulsberry, and the guess here is that they brought in JUCO Owen Williams because they thought they needed him, but Danny O'Brien and Jason Carr are both former four-star recruits who will still be on campus and could factor in. Perhaps one of the two will break out and take a starting spot. Behind them are two 2014 recruits at tackle, both of which may also be in the mix by 2015. As I said, you tell me. It's hard to predict great things from the 2015 defensive line, but with all the bodies in the mix, it's reasonable to hope that enough players emerge to give the Vols a solid line.
At linebacker, the 2015 cast of characters will be made almost entirely from players who were not in the rotation in 2013. Curt Maggitt will return from injury and could switch to defensive end, but that will likely depend on how players develop at both DE and OLB. Until we see others emerge to fill the gaps in the lineup, we'll treat him as a linebacker. Others in the mix at OLB include special teams standout Jalen Reeves-Maybin and three four-star recruits in Dillon Bates, Chris Weatherd, and Gavin Bryant. Weatherd has two years on Bates and Bryant and should have an edge in winning a spot in 2014, but Bates has the highest long-term expectations of the bunch and could slip into a starting role by 2015. In the middle, it looks like Tennessee will need either Bryant or Jakob Johnson to step up as a sophomore and fill A.J. Johnson's shoes. There will be plenty of talent in 2015, but there is loads of uncertainty from 18 months out. The 2014 recruiting class should ultimately make a difference at linebacker, but how quickly they develop is an open question. Anything from hit-and-miss to lights out is possible.
Defensive back is probably the most stable position group on defense, as three 2013 starters will remain in 2015, but it was also a position that saw the coaching staff look to recruit over some of the current prospects, as they signed six DBs in 2014. It seems safe to say that Cam Sutton and Brian Randolph will anchor the group, but could Todd Kelly Jr. or Cortez McDowell take the other safety position from LaDarrell McNeil? Expectations are high for both incoming safeties, and while it may be optimistic, the projection here is that Kelly is able to secure a starting position, with McNeil and McDowell providing excellent depth.
At corner, there's a free-for-all for the starting position opposite Sutton, but we'll go with D'Andre Payne, the highest rated 2013 or 2014 recruit at the position, to beat out Malik Foreman, Evan Berry, and Emmanuel Moseley. And the losers of the battle at corner may be entered into a fight with RaShaan Gaulden and Devaun Swafford at nickel. Take your pick there, but again, we'll pencil in Gaulden, the highest rated of the bunch. The secondary should be solid--perhaps even quite good--if two or three of those six players can turn into legitimate SEC starters, because Sutton should lock down the other side, and there's a promising mix of current production and future potential at safety.
Unlike the offense, where two or three 2014 recruits will be expected to fill holes in a lineup full of players already on campus, the defense could easily see six sophomores in the 2015 starting lineup. The sophomores won't be lacking it talent, but it's probably too much to ask for this group to be near the top of the SEC. Young lineups tend to be up-and-down, and Tennessee is probably looking at an inconsistent 2015 on defense, perhaps with significant improvement as the season progresses.
Depending on how the quarterbacks progress, 2015 may bear a lot of resemblance to the Vols' last East-winning campaign in 2007. The offense will be a bit younger in the skill positions, but the raw talent at receiver will be more than the Vols had eight years before, and the explosiveness should not be a problem. But so much depends on the progressions of the quarterback and the offensive line. On defense, 2007 is a more natural comparison. That defense started two sophomores and two freshmen and had some embarrassing performances--looking completely lost in Gainesville and Tuscaloosa and giving up yards and points by the ton against Cal and in the second half against Kentucky--along with some excellent ones, like shutting down Arkansas and Wisconsin and holding national champion LSU to just one offensive touchdown.
Overall, the talent on defense will probably still be too young to expect Butch Jones to vault Tennessee into national title contention in his third year--even if this recruiting class lives up to expectations--but from 18 months out, the 2015 team looks like a talented one that could propel the Vols back into the top fifteen and into SEC East contention. And while that wouldn't be arrival, it would certainly represent a huge leap forward after everything that's transpired since that win in Tampa to ring in 2008. And, if Tennessee can develop the offensive linemen to replace what may be four senior starters in 2015, it could set up an even bigger leap the following year.