Butch Jones and the Vols did a great job Saturday night making sure disappointment didn't become disaster. Team 117 didn't achieve its goal of bowl eligibility, and it was frustrating to watch us play well in spurts against Kentucky knowing there wasn't anything beyond tonight to win. But there will be in the future, and what's happening with Butch Jones and the Vols right now is both bigger and more complex than whether a fourth-and-one was overturned or not.
But now the page turns immediately to Team 118, starting with what remains the nation's second best recruiting class. We've been through enough transition to know this was never a quick turnaround no matter what we may have been led to believe after the South Carolina game. But what will present itself next fall will be a unique situation in the upperclassmen department as well.
The majority assumption is the Vols will lose Tiny Richardson to the NFL Draft (though make what you will of this tweet) but A.J. Johnson will stay in the fold. If so, here are the Vol seniors-to-be in 2014 on the current two deep depth chart:
Downs had 11 catches this year. Williams had nine tackles. Darr couldn't earn any one of three kicking duties from Michael Palardy
(who was especially exceptional punting this year). And we've frequently lamented Tennessee's disadvantages in the secondary with Coleman and Toney, a former walk-on running back.
So really what we're talking about is the 2014 Vols expect big things from Marlin Lane, who can help offset the workload of incoming five star Jalen Hurd, and A.J. Johnson at middle linebacker if he returns. Devrin Young may or may not continue to earn reps in the slot and as a kick returner; he certainly played a good game tonight.
But everywhere else Tennessee's focus needs to be on building for the future, and the depth chart will allow it.
Butch Jones and the Vols will have some choices to make with position battles and reps. And the expectation should and will be that if all things are equal or close to equal, the opportunities are going to go to the younger guys.
This means the 2014 Vols will look an awful lot like the 2015 Vols. And it's really 2015, when Tennessee won't be replacing both lines and won't be looking to true freshmen to make plays, when we should start expecting bigger things from Butch Jones. Not the biggest things. But bigger things.
Next year becomes all about infusing new talent into the program to build for its future. Butch Jones and his staff may not have finished the foundation this year, but they did put the framework and structures in place they want to be successful in the future. The question for 2014 isn't, "How many games do the Vols have to win?" It's much, much, much more about individual player development all over the place.
And you're going to get a big taste of it in spring practice, where you'll not only have a four wide quarterback battle that will include the first taste of Riley Ferguson
in the public eye, but 10-12 early enrollees from the best recruiting class we've seen in a long time.
This thing is a long way from being rebuilt and we shouldn't necessarily expect a huge difference in wins and losses next year. But opportunity arises everywhere on the depth chart from a team that's expect to have very few senior contributors next season.
Team 117 gave their all for Tennessee. Team 118 should feature more new faces than we've seen in a long time and build for the future, because it will likely make up much of Teams 119 and 120, the ones that will be expected to get Tennessee back to the promised land, and the ones that should ultimately tell the tale for Butch Jones.