The bulk of Tennessee's talent for this fall's run at the SEC title comes from sensational efforts on the recruiting trail by Butch Jones in 2014 and 2015. But it continues to be the case that Jones also did incredible work at the top of the 2013 class, his first responsibility with just two months to work on it after taking the Tennessee job in December 2012. Josh Dobbs and Jalen Reeves-Maybin were two of the four highest-rated signees in that group, with Cameron Sutton not too far down the board.
Tennessee's highest-rated signee from that group was Marquez North, who surprised many by declaring for the NFL Draft after an injury-plagued junior season in which he caught just six passes. But North's talent has never been in question, and heading into this week's NFL Draft he remains the most talented Vol available and the one most likely to be selected.
North's 6'4" 215 frame has always made him a primary target downfield, and his freshman season featured a number of highlights. North was an instant starter for Butch Jones, and really got going in October of his freshman year in 2013. In consecutive games he had four catches for 47 yards and one toe-dragging touchdown in a near-miss against Georgia, then did this in Tennessee's upset win over #11 South Carolina:
His final catch put the Vols in position to kick the game-winning field goal for the first signature win of Butch's tenure. Quarterback Justin Worley was lost for the year the next week at Alabama, but North continued to produce when Dobbs entered the fray as a freshman. He grabbed seven catches for 68 yards at eventual #5 Missouri in Dobbs' first start, then added five catches for 58 yards against eventual #2 Auburn the next week. At this point he had 37 catches for 494 yards in his first ten games.
And then he was injured after just one catch against Vanderbilt in a battle for bowl eligibility. Without North Tennessee's passing game went to a very bad place against Bob Shoop's defense, as Josh Dobbs played the worst game of his career (11 of 20 for 53 yards and three interceptions). Worley won the starting job again in 2014, and North pulled in 30 catches for 320 yards and four touchdowns in Tennessee's first eight games. The last of those featured Josh Dobbs at quarterback after another Worley season-ending injury, as the Vols came roaring back against Alabama in an eventual 34-20 loss.
The next week the Vols really made their breakthrough in Dobbs' first start of his sophomore year, rallying to beat South Carolina in overtime and starting the 13-5 run they've been on ever since. But North was pulled from that game with another injury and didn't play the rest of the season with a torn labrum.
With Dobbs firmly entrenched as Tennessee's starter coming into the 2015 season, North was looked to as option one in the passing game coming into fall camp. But a knee injury there - initially rumored to cost him the whole year - ensured another hobbled outing. He had one catch for nine yards against Oklahoma, three more against Western Carolina, then was knocked out of the Florida game when he took a shot to the back. He would return to catch one pass against Alabama, but to everyone's surprise that would become the final grab of his Tennessee career as he just never got healthy.
How many of the questions we've been asking about Tennessee's passing game could have been solved by a healthy Marquez North? Fans hoping to get that answer this fall will instead have to hope a team will take a chance on him in the late rounds, where North is projected to go. It's unfortunate from Tennessee's perspective that one of the most important guys who got in on the ground floor with Butch and the player who made the biggest impact in his first big win won't be around to reap the rewards in Knoxville. And he spent most of his time playing with Justin Worley as opposed to the non-freshman version of Josh Dobbs. But after running a 4.4 40 at the combine, his potential will be hard for teams to pass on with those final few draft picks. When healthy Marquez was a talented young player with a knack for big catches. We never got to see his full potential in Knoxville; I hope he gets a chance to show it in the NFL.