What We Know After Four Practices
Quarterback Will Be a Battle: – No surprise here… The quarterback position is the biggest question mark for this team heading into the season. Justin Worley has game experience and can make all the throws, but has struggled some during his limited opportunities. Worley opened camp as the starter and it will be his job to lose, but he will have competition to keep it.
Nathan Peterman had a good spring, but did not do enough to unseat Worley. Peterman has struggled some with decision-making and accuracy in his time at Tennessee, something he must improve this summer if he wants to be the Vols’ starter in game one.
Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson have arrived on campus with a lot of hype and expectations, and while they are talented players with bright futures, expecting freshmen to come in and start in the SEC in 2013 is likely a bit much.
More will be learned about the freshmen when the pads go on tonight, but at this point I do not see one of them starting against Austin Peay. Could one of them start? Yes, but the best scenario for this team is for Justin Worley to take command of the position in camp and never look back.
Youth Will be Served at Wide Receiver: – “Wide-Receiver U” lived up to its billing in 2012, landing three players on NFL rosters, two of which were taken in the first thirty-four picks of the Draft. 2013 will feature plenty of new faces…emphasis on plenty.
Outside, Jason Croom and Paul Harris showed flashes of elite ability in the spring but were not as consistent as the coaching staff would like. Vincent Dallas and Jacob Carter provided consistency, but lack the dynamic ability of Harris and Croom.
The two wild cards on the outside are Cody Blanc and newcomer Marquez North. North is the guy that everyone is already talking about. He has everything you look for in a wide receiver at this level: size, speed, hands, leaping ability, strength, attitude, and elusiveness. The only thing that will slow his progress is his ability to absorb the playbook, but according to coach Jones he already knows all four receiver positions in this offense. Clearly, North is already being thought of as a potential starter on this team and a guy that will be heavily relied upon all season.
Cody Blanc had a solid spring and has the speed to get behind many SEC defensive backs. The question with Blanc is route running and learning the position. If he can hone in on those two aspects then he will have a chance to make some plays for the Vols this year.
In the slot, Devrin Young and Pig Howard seemed to struggle mightily in the spring as they adjusted to the new system. They lacked consistency in route running and catching the football. Physically, both are exactly what this staff wants at the slot position but they must do a better job between the lines and be more receptive to coach Azzanni’s coaching style. Howard has already started to distance himself from Young in the few practices this fall due to his extra work put in over the summer.
Newcomers Ryan Jenkins and Jonathan Johnson will challenge Howard and Young for reps as practice intensity turns up. Both Jenkins and Johnson have played the position their entire careers, whereas Devrin Young and Pig Howard are both still adjusting from playing running back during high school. If the new additions can pick up the schemes in a timely manner, look for them to make their way into the rotation.
Leader Needed at Running Back: – The running back position as a whole is not a question mark, but the order of the depth-chart is. Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal are solid SEC-quality running backs, but neither has taken the ‘next step’ into the upper echelon. Lane’s toughness and vision allow him to get the most out of every carry, while Neal’s speed and strength allow him to get out in space and break tackles.
Lane was suspended for most of spring practice but was allowed back with the team this summer. The question with Lane is his attitude. Now that he is back with the team, will he remain dedicated to working hard and taking care of his business off the field? He is the best pure running back on the team and when healthy and focused he can provide this team with a versatile weapon on offense.
Redshirt freshman Alden Hill ran very hard in the spring and took advantage of Marlin Lane’s absence. If he can continue to improve he will provide an excellent third option in the backfield.
Cornerback Depth Emerging: – The two starting cornerback positions seem to be settled with Riyahd Jones and Justin Coleman. The question marks come when you start looking at who is behind them. The depth-chart released by Tennessee says that two true freshmen, Malik Forman and Cameron Sutton, are the backups to Jones and Coleman.
Sutton and Foreman have both impressed early, while Jones and Coleman seem to have picked up where they left off after a solid spring. Sutton also looks to be a likely candidate to return some kicks this year if he can demonstrate the ability to catch and hold onto the football.
For a passing defense that finished sub-100 in the nation last year in passing yards surrendered per game, two freshmen in the two-deep is a concern. Their ability to pick up the schemes and adjust to college football will be paramount to this team’s success this year.
Top-Heavy Talent at Linebacker: – The entire country knows about Tennessee’s A.J. Johnson. The middle linebacker is preseason All-SEC and on countless award watch-lists. Dontavis Sapp at outside linebacker has a chance to really surprise people this year as a compliment to A.J. Look for Sapp to be turned loose to make some plays with his speed and quickness off of the edge.
The concern at linebacker is the health of Curt Maggitt. The junior suffered an ACL tear towards the end of last season and there have been some concerns as to how well his recovery has gone thus far in the off-season. Behind Maggitt are first year linebacker Brent Brewer and redshirt freshman Kenny Bynum.
The loss of Maggitt could turn this linebacker corps from a strength into a weakness on this football team. The depth concerns were already there before word of Maggitt’s health started to circulate and the loss of him would certainly be a huge hit to that unit. Maggitt has looked much better this summer in his recovery, and with two games to ease him back into his role, he should be very close to 100% by the time the Vols head to Oregon. Talent is not in question at the Linebacker position this year, but the ability of this group to stay healthy will determine their success this season.
Houston Kress is a co-host/producer/writer for Tennessee Sports Radio. You can contact/follow him on Twitter at @VolRumorMill.