As mentioned on our Signing Day podcast last week, just because the Vols have lower expectations in 2013 on the heels of five years of bad football doesn't mean spring practice won't be interesting. What we know for sure about Butch Jones' first team is as follows: A.J. Johnson will lock down one spot at linebacker, Maurice Couch and Daniel McCullers will do the same at defensive tackle, and we have the best offensive line in America. Not a bad place to start at all, but after that we know nothing. And obviously, that goes for what we know about the head coach as well.
So this spring will be educational to say the least. To get a jump on your homework, here's our first look at who will line up for the Vols this spring to set the tone for this fall:
Current Grade: Incomplete - Future Grade: B
We've seen Justin Worley against live fire in three starts in 2011 and a short burst against Vanderbilt last year, along with a few snaps of garbage time here and there. In 2011 Worley was good against MTSU (23 of 32 for 291 and a touchdown, throwing to Da'Rick Rogers and little else) but cost the Vols in his first start the week before in a winnable game against South Carolina (10 of 26 for 105 and two costly interceptions). He also has the distinction of being the starting quarterback in the worst Vol loss of the last thirty years at Arkansas last season (15 of 29 for 208 and an INT). After working out the kinks against the Gamecocks his completion percentages were usually pretty good, as was expected coming out of high school. But the Vols didn't finish drives and interceptions really hurt us against Carolina and then Vanderbilt last fall, where Worley went 8 of 11 for 51 yards when Dooley yanked Tyler Bray in the second quarter but also threw a pick.
Peterman is something different, bringing more mobility to the table. He was originally recruited by Butch Jones at Cincinnati before choosing the Vols, the 8th best pro style quarterback in Rivals' 2012 rankings. Peterman redshirted last fall; many will instantly gravitate his way both because Butch liked him for his system and because we've seen Worley and weren't wowed (and Tyler Bray's freshman year will do neither any favors in our collective memory).
Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs will join the mix this fall, giving Tennessee a unique situation with four scholarship quarterbacks but no seniors. If all four are given a shot this fall it will be the first time we've seen that since 2000, when Joey Mathews, A.J. Suggs, John Rattay, and Casey Clausen all competed for the job Iceman eventually won by midseason (and would've claimed sooner if not for an injury in fall camp). That situation produced three different starters and three losses in the first seven games; we saw the same thing due to injury in 2011.
Worley and Peterman are different players separated by two years of eligibility. I don't know if one will be named the starter coming out of spring practice, I don't know if they'll hold it against either freshman, and I don't know if the guy who starts against Austin Peay will be the same guy taking snaps against Alabama. What we all hope is by this time next year, we're not trying to figure out who our guy is.
So basically, we don't know anything here, but nothing draws interest in spring practice like a quarterback battle. We can't grade this one yet because we haven't seen any of Peterman or enough of Worley, but we give it a B for sheer depth for the future.
Current Grade: B- - Future Grade: C-
Your mileage may vary on Rajion Neal. After Neal got all of the yards that were available to him (quote stolen from Brad) against Florida with 87 on 23 carries, he went off against Akron (22 for 151) and then busted up Georgia (23 for 104). We were ready to start calling him a good back when he got hurt at Mississippi State, missed all of Alabama and South Carolina, then never had more than 15 carries in any game the rest of the way. So he finishes 2012 with 708 yards and five touchdowns on an explosive pass-first offense. Not bad at all, and certainly better than anything the atrocious 2011 ground game put up, but again, you're left feeling like there could've been more.
Marlin Lane actually averaged more yards per carry (5.5 to 4.5) but made most of his hay against Troy, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky. Those two combined for 1366 yards between them, which again isn't a bad day at the office. After that you've got Devrin Young, used mostly in a specialty role to finish with just 33 caries for 140 yards. It will be interesting to see how many of those touches he gets this fall, or if any of them go to Pig Howard. Also of note: we didn't include fullbacks in here because I'm not sure how Butch Jones is going to use a guy like Justin King.
We haven't seen Alden Hill or Tom Smith really, and we'll add Jabo Lee to the mix this fall. What's interesting about Butch Jones at Cincinnati is that he wasn't really a stable guy: George Winn got 243 carries for 1,334 yards last year, with Ralph David Abernathy IV as the backup getting just 69 carries on the season. And the gap was even wider during Isaiah Pead's time; Pead had 237 carries in his senior season, with the next RB on the depth chart (Winn) getting just 40.
I'm not sure if we'll see the same philosophy in Knoxville because I'm not sure Butch likes one of these guys enough to go that route. But it will be interesting to see the distribution of carries in both spring and fall. One thing's for sure: the two best friends of a brand new quarterback are a great offensive line, which we have, and a great running game. Do we have a horse on the roster for that?
Current Grade: Incomplete - Future Grade: B
Tennessee completed 285 passes last season. 199 of those receptions and 81% of the passing yards from last year are gone. UT's leading returning pass catcher is actually Marlin Lane (29 for 228); among receivers Vincent Dallas caught nine balls, Jacob Carter eight, and Pig Howard a baker's dozen. That's it.
Tennessee signed the best WR class in the country in 2012, and the proof was in Cordarrelle Patterson's pudding. Pig Howard was hurt early and Croom & Bowles never played. The popular opinion seems to be that you're going to see Pig Howard a lot in this offense. But how and where are uncertain, as is who will be the leading pass catcher for this team. MarQuez North will join this mix in the fall, but Paul Harris will get a leg up on the competition this spring.
Again, you have to use the strengths of each individual team, but note Butch's past: in 2011, Cincinnati had four players catch between 37 and 49 passes. Last year, the Bearcats had five players catch between 24 and 45 passes. There has been a "no stars" mentality surrounding production in the pass game for Jones the last two years, and Tennessee's 2013 roster may line up accordingly. Factor in Brendan Downs and Justin Meredith at tight end as well this spring, both of which should be fully healthy for the first time. Who of this group will separate themselves?
Offensive Line: LT Tiny Richardson (Jr), LG Marcus Jackson (Jr) OR Alex Bullard (Sr), C James Stone (Sr), RG Zach Fulton (Sr), RT Ja'Wuan James (Sr). Backups: Kyler Kerbyson (RSo), Mack Crowder (RSo), Alan Posey (RSo)
Current Grade: A+ - Future Grade: D
Unless Marcus Jackson beats out Alex Bullard at guard, just get ready to hear "The Vols lost all five starters on the offensive line" about a billion times next spring/summer.
This is an NFL offensive line in waiting. Stone, Fulton, and James are four year starters. Tiny Richardson got the best of the best for all but one play at South Carolina and will almost certainly have an opportunity to go pro early. Dallas Thomas is gone but Bullard has plenty of experience, though most of it came at tackle. Jackson has also played meaningful snaps in the past.
After that? Hoo boy. The Kerbyson/Crowder/Posey group all redshirted because they didn't have to play behind this group, but we will absolutely need them in 2014. The Vols signed three linemen in this year's class including four star Austin Sanders, but Tennessee is going to need huge help, specifically at tackle, next February.
But we'll worry about that later. Right now, I'm very happy to embrace a team led by senior linemen headed for the NFL. O-line pride can lead the way; one early projection of leadership can be found by looking at the twenty captains chosen for this VOLympics thing; all four returning starters on the line were chosen.
Defensive Line: DT Maurice Couch (Sr), DT Daniel McCullers (Sr), DE Jacques Smith (Sr), DE Marlon Walls (Sr), DE Jordan Williams (Jr), DL Corey Miller (Sr), DT Daniel Hood (Sr), Trevarris Saulsberry (RSo), Danny O'Brien (RFr), Greg Clark (RJr)
Current Grade: B- - Future Grade: D+
Not quite as obvious as the issues at offensive line because those guys are all good up front, but the Vols could also start four players on the defensive line that will be playing their final season in Knoxville. You feel good about the Couch/McCullers combo at DT. At end, there are names you've seen before like Jacques Smith, Marlon Walls, and Corey Miller, but nothing that's overly inspiring. I'm intrigued by Jordan Williams and Trevarris Saulsberry specifically, but we haven't seen it in depth yet.
With Saulsberry, O'Brien, and Clark the Vols have some depth in the hole at tackle. But at end, the cupboard is much more bare. Jason Carr will get here in the fall and could compete right away; I think Carr is the newcomer who will make the biggest impact on this team in 2013. But when "Will the Vols get more pressure on the quarterback?" makes its annual appearance in our 10 Questions for 20XX series, remember even the guys we hope will be the answer this year may all be gone next year.
Linebacker: A.J. Johnson (Jr), Curt Maggitt (Jr), Raiques Crump (Sr), LaTroy Lewis (RFr), Dontavis Sapp (Sr), Channing Fugate (Sr), John Propst (Sr), Greg King (Sr), Christian Harris (RSo), Kenny Bynum (RFr), Corey Vereen (Fr)
Current Grade: B+ - Future Grade: B+
The health of Curt Maggitt is question number one here, returning from a torn ACL in mid-November. If he can go, he'll be back with A.J. Johnson to create a very formidable 1-2 punch. After that, there's an opening for the third starter and, as you can see, a ton of options. There are guys we haven't seen a whole lot of, both youngsters like Lewis and Bynum, to the Kiffin/Dooley class holdovers in Sapp, Fugate, Propst, and Crump, plus Greg King who is still here from the original Kiffin class. And keep an eye on Corey Vereen, who will be active in spring practice.
Of everything wrong with Tennessee's defense last year, it's this group that I am most confident in getting it right again. There's enough body count here to go almost four deep, which means this will be a very important and combative spring for all of the non Johnson/Maggitt crowd. Who will separate themselves here?
Defensive Backs: Eric Gordon (RSr), Justin Coleman (Jr), Brian Randolph (Jr), Brent Brewer (Sr), Byron Moore (Sr), LaDarrell McNeil (So), Daniel Gray (So), Geraldo Orta (RSo), Tino Thomas (RFr), Naz Oliver (RSr), Jaron Toney (RJr), Riyahd Jones (Jr), Jalen Reeves-Maybin (Fr), Lemond Johnson (Fr)
Current Grade: C - Future Grade: C+
The bad news is, we've made the "With so many bodies surely we can find four of them that are capable" argument before, and you saw what happened with this last year. The good news is, the Vols add three early enrollees to the mix this spring. Brian Randolph is still recovering from a torn ACL in mid-September, but he should find his way back to the mix by fall. Otherwise, I don't know that anyone feels great about anyone on this list. Truly, any combination of these fourteen names would not surprise me. The hope here is, with Willie Martinez, these kids will actually improve instead of regress. And I think we'll see that.
Again, pressure on the quarterback can help these guys, but Tennessee has to find ways to create turnovers and stop giving up so many big plays. We kinda stopped counting late last season because we were too busy talking about the coaching search, but here's how the Vols ended last season:
- 74 plays of 20+ yards allowed, 115th nationally
- 36 plays of 30+ yards allowed, 113th nationally
- 21 plays of 40+ yards allowed, 118th nationally
- 12 plays of 50+ yards allowed, 118th nationally (one per game!)
- 9 plays of 60+ yards allowed, 123rd nationally (tied for last!)
- 8 plays of 70+ yards allowed, 124th nationally (all alone for last!)