Your favorite is your favorite, full stop.
There's no need to justify, explain, or cite statistics, and being your favorite doesn't have to mean the best or most exclusive. It just means someone that you, in particular, value and enjoy above other options. So with that in mind, here are our picks for our favorite current Vol, presented in the order we discussed them.
Hunter Turner - Marquez North
North was one of my favorite players to watch last year, but also one of the most frustrating. One year removed from watching upperclassmen Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson make the spectacular look ordinary every week in a series of tragic and doomed attempts to escape The Curse of Dooley, North's freshman inconsistency was absolutely maddening. Of course, it was
mostly completely absurd to expect a true freshman who had played primarily running back in high school to measure up to the sustained brilliance of a pair of future first round NFL draft picks... But oooooh, that potential! Those hands! That speed! And when it all came together, like his acrobatic, Spider-Man-fingered one hand-plus-shoulder catch to beat the Gamecocks, it was so, so good.
Through three games so far this season, North has fewer individual highlight reel moments, but he also has fewer freshman mistakes. He runs the right routes, catches the ball with sure hands, and leads a young group of wide receivers as the acknowledged alpha male. I've even seen some veteran savvy begin to creep into his game: a subtle drop step or change of pace, strong hands to fight the jam, and an-ever-so-artful hip bump to create separation that reminds me of former Azzani pupil Jared Abbraderis.
There was a hot second of doubt last year where I wondered if offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian could field an explosive offense like the Jim Chaney-led bunch that was so entertaining in 2012. It may not always be pretty, but so far this year, I'm liking the progress I've seen, and North is a huge reason why.
Kid Bourbon - Cam Sutton
I love me some cornerbacks, and I especially love me some cornerbacks when they're as awesome as Cam Sutton. Conventional football wisdom says that you build your defense from the front to the back -- implying that the defensive line is more important than the secondary -- but having a cornerback that you can reliably put on an island against the opposing team's best receiver is a huge advantage for the defense. It gives a defensive coordinator the leeway to take chances with the blitz from time to time, or to sell out to stop the run in order to force them into obvious passing situations. Because it's in those obvious passing situations where a great cornerback like Sutton becomes even an greater asset by giving the opposing QB two less than desirable options.
The quarterback can either make up his mind that he isn't throwing the ball in the direction of Sutton -- which helps the Vols by taking their best receiving weapon out of the game. Or the quarterback can put on his audacity pants and take a stab at tossing it in Cam's direction. I personally prefer the latter option. Not that Cam never gets beat or anything, but it sure seems like he wins way more of those battles than he loses, and some of them are won with an interception, which -- as we know all too well -- can be a game-deciding play.
And on top of all that, Cam Sutton can lay the lumber. The hit he put on the Oklahoma receiver -- seen above -- was reminiscent of one Mr. Eric Berry. As a corner, and not a safety, Cam doesn't get as many opportunities as EB did to send guys airborne and spiraling. But it's awesome to see a lockdown corner who also comes equipped with a mean streak. You're my boy, Cam.
Incipient Senescence - Derek Barnett
Is Cam Sutton great? Of course.
Is A.J. Johnson a beast? Absolutely.
Has Jalen-Reeves Mayhem added a new dimension to the linebacking corps? Definitely.
But here's the thing: all of those players were recruited by Derek Dooley. It does not mean that I do not love them, but it galls me to thank Dooley for anything, even if I know intellectually that it doesn't require me to change my consistently held and entirely correct opinion that Dooley was the worst thing that ever happened to Tennessee football. So I want someone new, someone who symbolizes the transition that Butch Jones is effecting in the Vols program. And Derek Barnett is that player.
He's the first defensive lineman in Tennessee history to start from week one as a true freshman. He played admirably against Utah State and Arkansas State, and he responded to his first road trip by nabbing five tackles including a TFL in Norman. Barnett is bound to make some mistakes in his first year on The Hill, but right now, he is both the sign and first fruits of the transformation of a unit that has been a weakness over the past few years. In the years to come, he will be one of the players leading the return of the entire football program.
Chris Pendley - Jalen Reeves-Maybin
Unlike other people on this post, I don't arbitrarily dock points because they were unfortunate enough to be recruited by former coaches. (They're just the gems he accidentally left behind.) With a large part of this team being brand new, Jalen Reeves-Mayhem's success in starting role eliminated the pre-season concern that we were staring at AJ Johnson and the Pips in the front six/seven. Second in the team in tackles *and* solo tackles? At least two more years of him? Yeah, I'll deal.
All right, fine: he's got a killer nickname and I love the dreads. Got a problem with that? Deal.
Will Shelton - Justin Worley
The question was "favorite", not "best", and as such I am drawn once again to Tennessee's senior quarterback. I'm a long-suffering supporter of Justin Worley, but I also think many Tennessee fans who may not ever have found themselves in that category still wanted to give him a hug after the Oklahoma game. True leadership is service, and Worley served as a sacrifice for the offensive line's sins on Saturday night. He didn't win any new allies with his yards-per-attempt against the Sooners, but as the quarterback who is and will be charged with leading the offense for the foundational wins Team 118 seeks, I would like to think his performance against Oklahoma earned him a measure of respect.
Worley isn't the first quarterback to take a beating from both the fan base and the opposition during his career - his game Saturday reminded me of Jonathan Crompton against Virginia Tech - but there is still so much opportunity left for this team and this offense, and if he can capitalize on it the way he did against Georgia and South Carolina this year, he has a chance to write a fairy tale ending for his career in Knoxville. An offense can feature underclassmen as its most talented players, but it cannot be led by them. This offense needs what Worley brings to the table - experience, maturity, coolness under fire. And I hope we're able to appreciate his brilliance in victory and not just eye-opening defeat this season.
Joel Hollingsworth - Jalen Hurd
You know that the team is as deep as it's been in a long time when you're last to pick and still have an option like Jalen Hurd. Dude was ballyhooed like a year before he even stepped on campus. A five-star, in-state running back who committed early and never wavered? A guy who's averaging 4.35 yards per carry and getting better and better each game (6.93 at Oklahoma) even as the competition ratchets up? I'll take it.
But the thing that's impressed me most about Hurd is what we've been able to see of his personality, character, and maturity. A customer who has a kid on the team told me the other day that every time Hurd was asked to choose his opponent for the Tennessee Drill, he chose to go up against senior linebacker and all-around beast A.J. Johnson. And when we get to see him in interviews, you have to be impressed with his poise and public speaking skills. He, as a true freshman, can handle the receiving end of a question in front of a microphone and a crowd better than 9 out of 10 adults I know.
And I absolutely fawn over the perfect blend of confidence and humility that Hurd displays when he speaks. In an early pre-season interview, a reporter asked him to respond to criticism that he was too tall to play running back, and he responded simply with a confident smile, "Just come see me play." (At the 2:55 mark on the first video in the playlist below.) It wasn't, "How dare you disrespect me, I'll show you." And it wasn't a whiny request to reconsider borne of insecurity. It was a simple reply to a question to which he knew he had the answer, and it was just a matter of time before you realized it.
Hoping that the team does well is always easy, but when it's filled with guys like Jalen Hurd, it takes on a whole new meaning.