For the first time since the Phillip Fulmer Era, Tennessee should have stability on both sides of the ball moving from one season to the next. If Mike Bajakian and John Jancek hold their posts - no reason to believe they won't at this point - the Vols will not only return the same head coach and coordinators for three consecutive years for the first time since 2003-05, Tennessee should return 19 of 22 starters (20 if you count Jakob Johnson replacing A.J. Johnson these last two weeks) including all 11 on the offensive side of the ball.
2015 should cross the threshold from rebuild to regular. It's the expectation in a head coach's third year; Derek Dooley's program was primed and ready to breakthrough in 2012, but then it lost its defensive coordinator and saw two of its top five returning wide receivers leave the program via transfer and dismissal. The 2015 Vols should carry even more stability and, even better, far more competition throughout the depth chart. Tennessee's committed class for February ranks fifth nationally in 247's Composite. More help is on the way, but it should now come at a time when Tennessee no longer needs true freshmen to step in and be heroes right away.
We're still nine months away from playing someone on September 5, and much can and will change between now and then. But for now, here's a first draft depth chart for the 2015 Vols, along with the primary questions for each position group:
- Josh Dobbs (Jr)
- Nathan Peterman (RJr)
- Quinten Dormady OR Jauan Jennings (Fr)
Questions: How good could Josh Dobbs be? Who is the backup?
The distance between Dobbs' ceiling and where he actually lives is a huge factor in the equation of Tennessee being good or great next season. His performances against South Carolina and Kentucky were off the charts; he was challenged by Missouri's defense and then with most of his weapons sidelined by injury he was the run-first and run-second option against Vanderbilt. You've got a couple of bad defenses in there and an Alabama defense that didn't know he was coming, but you've also got a historic comeback on the road in his first start of the season. If Dobbs plays well in the bowl game, confidence will soar again and Tennessee will feel like it has not just their quarterback of the future, but potentially something special.
In an ideal world Dobbs takes every meaningful snap next year, Peterman mops up, and the Vols can redshirt both Dormady and Jennings as incoming freshmen. But only twice in the last eleven years has one player taken all the meaningful snaps for the Vols at quarterback (Erik Ainge
in 2007, Jonathan Crompton
in 2009). Jennings has come on this season at quarterback, rising to 7th in 247's Composite Dual Threat QB rankings and earning a spot in the Rivals 250; he will join the fight in January
. Dormady is the 13th best pro style QB in the 247 Composite. Both should be in the fight to have their day as Tennessee's starting quarterback...you just don't want it to have to be next year.
- Jalen Hurd (So)
- Derrell Scott (So) OR Alvin Kamara (So) OR Ralph David Abernathy IV (Sr)
Questions: Who is the backup, and what's their workload?
Hurd didn't have a Chuck Webb/Jamal Lewis freshman season, though those guys were playing with NFL-bound upperclassmen all around them on offense instead of a shaky line and a touch-and-go passing game. But he did run for 777 yards at 4.5 yards per carry, the same average Bryce Brown had in 2009 on far fewer touches. Hurd looks like the real deal. The question now becomes who will spell him from time to time? Fellow freshmen Derrell Scott has been banged up all year and managed only 11 carries for 40 yards against Chattanooga and Ole Miss. Alvin Kamara will come to Knoxville as the third best JUCO prospect in the nation and could instantly step into that role (Kamara redshirted at Alabama, so he's the rare JUCO player who has three years of eligibility remaining). And Abernathy will come as a graduate transfer from Cincinnati after taking a medical redshirt this fall; he fits the Devrin Young model and may be used more as a specialist than a backup running back, but is certainly the most experienced option behind Hurd.
Here's a look at the carry distribution for running backs under Butch Jones:
- 2014 Vols: Jalen Hurd 174, Marlin Lane 77
- 2013 Vols: Rajion Neal 215, Marlin Lane 101
- 2012 Cincy: George Winn 243, Ralph David Abernathy IV 69
- 2011 Cincy: Isaiah Pead 237, George Winn 40
- 2010 Cincy: Isaiah Pead 157, George Winn 34
So we've seen Butch and Bajakian give the backup anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of the running back carries in their offense. It has never been even and I certainly wouldn't expect it to be with Hurd as option one. But the Vols will need to help him out, and should have plenty of good options to do so.
- WR: Marquez North (Jr), Josh Smith (RSo)
- WR: Josh Malone (So), Jason Croom (Jr)
- Slot: Pig Howard (Sr), Von Pearson (Sr)
Questions: Who can separate themselves?
If you told anyone six months ago Pig Howard would be our most reliable wide receiver for the 2015 season, they would've laughed at you. Howard was questionable to even return to the Vols for 2014, but became the team's leading receiver with 52 catches for 589 yards; if he catches four passes in the bowl game he will have the third-highest season total in the post-Fulmer era. Beyond him you'll have North and Smith returning from injury and Josh Malone looking to improve after catching 19 passes in the first seven games and just three in the final five. The Vols also hold a hotly-contested commitment from five-star Preston Williams, the best example of no longer needing a freshman to come in and be the man right away the way Malone and especially North were asked to. Nineteen different Vols caught a pass this year, which means names like Jonathan Johnson, Vic Wharton, and Ryan Jenkins will all be back to contribute as well. The cupboard overflows. We just need to make sure some of it gets in the end zone.
- Ethan Wolf (So)
- Daniel Helm (So) OR Alex Ellis (Sr)
Questions: How good could Wolf be? How much will we have to use tight ends in pass protection?
Wolf got off to an incredible start this year with three catches against Utah State, five before leaving the Arkansas State game with an injury, then returned to catch five passes at Georgia. Since then he caught no more than two passes in any games the rest of the way home. Some of that deals with having to leave the tight end back in pass protection to help a much-maligned offensive line. But Wolf certainly showed signs of being a real threat early in his freshman campaign. Alex Ellis was an afterthought as the season began but caught as many passes (six) as Helm for far more yardage (115), bolstered by the fake field goal score against Missouri. Signs appear to point to Wolf as one and Helm or Ellis as two, but I'll be interested to see if they can mature and make it a 1A/1B conversation.
- C: Mack Crowder (Sr), Dylan Wiesman (Jr)
- OG: Jashon Robertson (So), Austin Sanders (RSo)
- OG: Marcus Jackson (Sr), Jack Jones (Fr)
- OT: Kyler Kerbyson (Sr), Dontavius Blair (RJr)
- OT: Coleman Thomas (So), Brett Kendrick (RSo)
Questions: What is the best five? How much better will they be?
The two most important names here could be the only two newcomers. Dontavius Blair was thought to be an immediate answer at tackle, but redshirted because he wasn't ready. A year later, can he step in and be the player the Vols need at tackle? I think it goes without saying Tennessee feels better in the interior, where they could start three seniors if Kyler Kerbyson slides back to his more natural fit at guard. Coleman Thomas got the fire baptism and then got hurt, so I'll be curious to see how he responds with a year of experience and weight training on him. Jack Jones is the highest rated of Tennessee's four offensive lineman commits, but no one projects him to be the answer at left tackle and everyone should be aware of the dangers of playing true freshmen, no matter how good, on the offensive line in the SEC. Charles Mosley could also be in the mix here after taking a redshirt this season following his car accident.
The 2014 Vols suffered at every turn because of the struggles of this unit, giving up 42 sacks. That number is 122nd nationally going into this Saturday's game, and only the Clawfense gave up more sacks (48) among power conference teams. The 2010 line, which had more star-power in recruiting rankings, gave up 41 in 13 games. If Butch Jones is still about getting his best five on the field, the Vols will lose only Jacob Gilliam and could replace him with Blair and run Blair, Jackson, Crowder, Jashon, and either Coleman Thomas or Kyler Kerbyson. Or they could slide Kerbyson back inside and rotate more at center and guard. Who knows, but it has to get better. And it will, but it has to get significantly better for the Vols to significantly improve.
- DE: Derek Barnett (So), Dewayne Hendrix (So)
- DE: Corey Vereen (Jr), LaTroy Lewis (Jr)
- DT: Danny O'Brien (RJr), Kahlil McKenzie (Fr)
- DT: Owen Williams (Sr) OR Trevarris Saulsberry (Sr), Shy Tuttle (Fr)
Questions: How quickly can the five-stars contribute at tackle?
For this exercise we're counting Curt Maggitt as a linebacker. Jordan Williams is one of two senior starters who will need to be replaced, three counting A.J. Johnson. Owen Williams and Trevarris Saulsberry both have plenty of experience and both battled injuries all year. But all the hype will go to Tuttle and especially McKenzie, currently the 9th best player in the nation according to Rivals and Tennessee's most celebrated recruit. I know we've just seen Derek Barnett tie for the SEC lead in tackles for loss as a true freshman, but it still seems premature to expect any true freshman to come in and be effective right away at defensive tackle in the SEC. I would love to be found too cautious in saying so. I think you can expect McKenzie and Tuttle to contribute, but to start and/or make a meaningful difference right away? We'll see. What you can expect is Barnett to continue to dominate, and keep an eye on Hendrix, who could steal away that other starting spot from Vereen if he continues to mature. Tennessee needs one sack in the bowl game to double its total from last year. Happy days are here again in the opponent's backfield.
- LB: Curt Maggitt (Sr), Chris Weatherd (Sr)
- LB: Jalen Reeves-Maybin (Jr), Dillon Bates (RFr)
- MLB: Jakob Johnson (So), Kenny Bynum (Jr)
Questions: What is the most effective use of Maggitt? Who plays middle linebacker, especially in a 4-3?
While the Vols do spend the majority of their time in the nickel package, the need for a solid option at middle linebacker has been apparent the last two weeks as true freshman Jakob Johnson has been thrown into the fire. Johnson returns next year and could again be in line to hold down a spot in the 4-3. I'm more intrigued by how the Vols will line up in their nickel package, if UT will elect to leave Maggitt and JRM as the two LBs, which means playing slightly out of position and keeping Maggitt further away from the defensive line at times. The redshirt junior currently needs one sack to tie John Henderson for the third-best season in Vol history, and teamed with Barnett would form one of the most powerful pass rush combos at defensive end in all of college football. How the Vols elect to solve their linebacker issues - where UT had the best starters and the worst depth this fall - could go a long way toward setting the tone of the 2015 defense.
- CB: Cameron Sutton (Jr), Evan Berry (So)
- CB: Emmanuel Moseley (So), D'Andre Payne (So)
- Nickel: Malik Foreman (Jr)
- Safety: Brian Randolph (Sr), Rashaan Gaulden (So)
- Safety: LaDarrell McNeil (Sr), Todd Kelly (So)
Questions: Who will replace Justin Coleman? Which backups will prove themselves?
Tennessee's secondary could have the same problem next year as its linebacker corps this year: solid-to-great in the starting lineup, inexperienced and raw in the second string. Tennessee has stayed sensationally healthy in the defensive backfield this season, so we never got a chance to really see guys like Gaulden do anything other than special teams work (which he in particular did very well). Kelly and McNeil are both experienced, and Foreman has significant playing time behind the departing Justin Coleman (who has his flaws, but also led the team with four picks this year). But the second team corners would still be totally inexperienced in meaningful situations were Sutton and/or Moseley to go down. The Vols are plenty deep in the secondary, but the quality right now is all at the top; hopefully that's only because the younger guys haven't needed to step in and prove themselves just yet.
- K: Aaron Medley (So)
- P: Tommy Townsend (Fr)
- KR: Evan Berry (So)
- PR: Cameron Sutton (Jr)
Questions: Who is Tommy Townsend?
We've said it before: the most noticeable difference between Team 118 and Team 119 is the number of starters you questioned. The 2014 Vols started five true freshmen on offense plus Von Pearson, a JUCO transfer. Derek Barnett, Emmanuel Moseley, and Todd Kelly all earned starts as true freshmen on the defensive side of the ball. Aaron Medley started as a freshman at kicker, while Evan Berry ended the year as the primary kick returner.
Next year, unless Jack Jones is sorely needed and/or Kahlil McKenzie is really just that good, the Vols will start one true freshman: the punter, Tommy Townsend. That's it.
Matt Darr followed in Michael Palardy's footsteps this year, going from groan-inducing to, "Hey, we're really gonna miss that kid!" Aaron Medley hit 19 of 25 field goals, a nice start to his career. Berry just barely has enough returns to qualify for national leaderboards, but his 29.5 yard average on 14 returns is good for fourth in the nation. Sutton took a punt return to the house last week. Tennessee's coaching and its talent have been a great benefit to UT's special teams play. There's certainly hope, then, that they can do the same with another freshman specialist next season.
In all, there are mostly familiar names and plenty of room for improvement, most notably the natural kind that comes from freshmen becoming sophomores. Tennessee's depth chart is back to a healthy place in every sense of the word, which will allow Butch Jones to follow up his excellent work on the recruiting trail with more excellent work next fall.