A few quick thoughts after seeing the Vols' spring game at Neyland Stadium today, the first public look at Butch Jones' second squad:
I don't know who will win the quarterback battle, but these receivers will make him look good.
I will not get too excited. I will not get too excited. I will not get too excited.
When Tennessee lines up Marquez North, Josh Malone, and Von Pearson, it looks very dangerous. Before we go making Da'Rick/Hunter/CP comparisons (a trio we never actually saw together) let's remember this was the spring game against a young secondary, one impression in a sheltered environment. Then let's remember we're talking about a sophomore, a true freshman, and a juco transfer.
But if they look even in the neighborhood of as good as they did today...oh man, they're still just a sophomore, a true freshman, and a juco transfer.
Josh Malone was the most explosive player on the field today, and it wasn't particularly close. The true freshman hauled in a pair of perfectly thrown balls from Josh Dobbs en route to deep touchdowns, and finished with six catches for 181 yards and three scores. Marquez North did his thing too with five for 106 and a score. Pearson caught a pair of passes for 28 yards and also had two carries for 15 yards.
The potential strength of this receiving corps allows the Vols to move Jason Croom and Josh Smith, a starter and contributor last season, to the fourth and fifth spots. Smith was strong today with four catches for 36 yards. What's more, it allows Tennessee to move forward and legitimately feel like it may not suffer even if Pig Howard never returns to the team.
At quarterback, your guess is as good as mine, but my guess would be Worley at least at the beginning. The four today combined to go 32 of 45 for 514 yards, with six touchdowns and one interception. The pick belonged to Ferguson on a very bad decision; he leaves today with the lowest numbers of the four, but those numbers were still 7 of 12 for 83 yards and a touchdown. The quarterbacks were live today and did take four sacks; three went to Ferguson.
Whoever wrote Josh Dobbs out of the equation certainly seemed premature, though Dobbs saw more of the backups than Worley. Last year's starter still doesn't have as strong an arm as the young guns, but he was 11 of 13 for 151 and a score, no picks and no sacks. He was on the money on a deep ball to North, looked very good in general, and remains Tennessee's safest option.
With these receivers, perhaps the guy with the best command of the offense and the least mistakes is the choice to make at the beginning of the season.
There's talking about playing fast, then there's actually playing fast.
The Vols were very quick offensively today, often snapping the ball with 20+ seconds on the play clock. I don't have any data on this, but it felt faster than it was last year, and that makes sense in the second year of Butch Jones and Mike Bajakian.
This brings us back to the 2012 question: with a potentially high-scoring offense but a potentially questionable defense, do you keep your foot on the gas? It did not work well for Sal Sunseri, but I think we're dealing with better material this time around.
Managing the offense effectively at a fast pace could be another reason to go with Worley. If Tennessee struggles to stop power running games this fall and get its defense off the field, Tennessee will need to be more efficient on offense on third down than it was last year. But if today was any indication, the Vols will be playing something closer to the speed Jones and Jake envisioned when they got here.
Hey look, depth!
Everywhere except the offensive line, anyway.
It was strange to sit there today and watch newcomers get on the field and not have to count on them immediately. There's Justus Pickett or Riyahd Jones (who led the way with eight tackles), players you've heard of but haven't seen. Now that Butch Jones has rebuilt some of the numbers and some of the talent, you don't have to cross your fingers and hope guys like these are instant-impact players, you can simply enjoy the maturation process.
A.J. Johnson? Don't need to see what he can do, we know. Jalen Hurd? Great to see, but doesn't have to come right in and be a superstar because Marlin Lane is still there too, and Devrin Young offers a third change-of-pace. And maybe the best example is a guy like Jalen Reeves-Maybin. He was all over the field again today, much the same as last year. Here's a guy who may not even start and may not have to. But Tennessee is slowly getting back to players like JRM making an impact off the bench instead of having to start because there's nothing else in front of them. You're starting to be able to be excited about not just the one-deep anymore.
There are still lots of questions.
In the secondary, where Cam Sutton looked great last year but has to be frustrated going up against these receivers in practice. It's a baptism by fire for Emmanuel Moseley and D'Andre Payne, getting beat by Malone and North repeatedly today. But you hope through the fire these guys are better players come August, and a secondary that will welcome back Brian Randolph from injury will be better too. A bunch of talent is coming this summer to get in the fight back there, but we're not exactly sure who will take the field on August 31.
Talent might be coming on the defensive line too, but it's harder for those guys to jump right in and play. Jakob Johnson looks like a defensive end instead of a linebacker now, but Tennessee still has to rely on guys who are new and guys who haven't gotten it done before. If quarterback play is okay and we get reliable place kicking, defensive line may be Tennessee's biggest weakness. That's not good news in the SEC.
We now enter into the longest time of the year, where between now and August people will say things like, "Dobbs hit all four of those nets in the passing drill, he might be our guy!" You don't want to read too much into the Orange & White Game; remember, Tyler Bray went 5 of 30 one April.
But talent rises to the top, and behind it there is more depth than the Vols have enjoyed since probably Phillip Fulmer's last few years. Tennessee is getting stronger, and while I don't know how soon we'll see results in the SEC gauntlet, I do know without a doubt the program has moved forward under Butch Jones.
Commence the off-season speculation. Go Vols.