It's been a strange and busy spring for the Vol athletic department. This should have been the most interesting spring practice of at least the last fifteen years, going back to the last spring quarterback derby in 2000. But a late run by the basketball team put the Vols in the NCAA Tournament and then into its second weekend, followed by Marquette's run on our head coach. With all the talk about basketball, Butch Jones and company have flown a little lower under the radar than expected.
Maybe the head coach likes it that way, especially with so much youth being infused into the program. Fourteen newcomers are taking part in spring practice, and almost all of them are seeing action in the mythical two-deep. Butch Jones may not release any names of any starters to promote competition and extra motivation into the summer, but that won't stop any of us from inserting the newest names into our own imaginary two deep.
So much is expected from these freshmen, and tomorrow is our first real chance to see them with our own eyes. Spring games aren't useful for a whole lot but are at their best when they make you feel good about your team; here's hoping the Vols script theirs to do just that. For the entire team, here are five players to watch in tomorrow's Orange & White Game:
5. Daniel Helm & Ethan Wolf
The offensive line is Tennessee's biggest question mark coming into the season, but it will be hard to single out individuals or judge them based on the spring game. But part of Tennessee's presence up front is the tight end position, and that will be much easier to evaluate. Freshmen Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf have both been in the mix early, especially with injuries nagging Brendan Downs and A.J. Branisel. The Vol passing game should be flush with talent this fall, giving Helm and/or Wolf additional opportunities to contribute against defenses forced to cover the entire field.
4. Defensive Line
On the other side of the line some familiar names are back, but only sophomore Corey Vereen really creates excitement. The newcomers here are juco DT Owen Williams and freshman end Dimarya Mixon; also watch out for freshman linebacker Jakob Johnson to slide down to end at times, where the need is certainly higher right now. I'm curious to see who the Vols will start up front and if any of the newcomers can make a name for themselves immediately.
3. Von Pearson & Josh Malone
Pearson has already made a couple of highlight reel plays and Malone was Tennessee's highest-rated recruit according to some sites. Combined with Marquez North the Vols should have all kinds of talent at wide receiver even if Pig Howard does not return to the team. North set the standard for freshmen making plays last season, and he didn't even participate in spring practice. So Pearson and Malone should have an early start; their production will certainly be tied into quarterback play, which is tied into offensive line play. But there's a lot to be excited about here.
2. Jalen Hurd
Marlin Lane is still in the hunt even with a hand injury, but Hurd is the future and the true freshmen the most number of fans want to see. Running behind an inexperienced offensive line but against an inexperienced defensive front, we'll see if the big Vol freshmen can give us something to get excited about for this fall.
Tennessee's four man quarterback battle appears to be a two horse race: Justin Worley, the senior starter from last year before an injury cost him the second half of the season, and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson. This appears to have all the makings of what we saw four years ago with Matt Simms and Tyler Bray: one is more experienced and a better game manager, less risk and less reward. The other is raw and full of talent, who can make plays to both win and lose you games. Don't expect this thing to be settled until August, but flashes from Ferguson - the unknown quality and the guy everyone certainly hopes is the future - would be the greatest gift fans could get tomorrow afternoon.
It should be a perfect day, highs in the upper 70s and only a 10% chance of rain. The game is free and starts at 3:00 PM at Neyland Stadium. Let's hope a huge crowd comes out to greet a huge performance from newcomers and veterans who will form Team 118 this fall.