By Alex Norman
Over the weekend the Tennessee Volunteers got spring practice underway. It was the first time that new head coach Butch Jones got to see his team in a real, live practice session.
Question marks abound for this group… a group coming off a third straight losing season.
The offense loses their top playmakers, including quarterback Tyler Bray, wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, and tight end Mychal Rivera. Offensive lineman Dallas Thomas is also a guy Jones has to replace.
The season is still more than 5 ½ months away, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about what the 2013 offense will look like.
Two highly regarded recruits, Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson, won’t be on campus until the summer, but they’ll each get a shot at replacing Bray. The guys that are in camp now are Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman. Worley, who will be a junior next season, is the only returning signal caller with any collegiate experience.
So who will Jones go with in the Fall? Tennessee has a tradition of starting freshman quarterbacks (2000: AJ Suggs and Casey Clausen, 2004: Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge, 2009: Tyler Bray). Could history repeat itself?
“That’s really hard to say. I’ll know a bit better through training camp,” said Jones. “It’s extremely hard to expect true freshmen to come in and make a difference individually. I think it’s hard. The thing we have to do is focus on the process. Too many people want to focus on the end results. We just need to focus on the process and that’s winning tomorrow.”
Jones added, “The individual who manages the football the best and makes the least amount of mistakes, but really, it’s the individual that gives us the best opportunity to win come Saturdays will be our starting quarterback. It’ll be an ongoing process, one (practice) through fifteen and then into the summer months… but I’ve been encouraged by everything I’ve seen out of our quarterbacks.”
This football program has produced a long list of terrific running backs (Reggie Cobb, Charlie Garner, Jay Graham, Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry and MANY MORE), but in recent years that position has been one of frustration for Tennessee fans.
Going into 2013, Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane are the incumbents, and each will have his opportunities to turn things around.
Neal, a senior, has gained 1039 yards on the ground in three seasons at Tennessee, starting half of the Vols games last year. Lane, a junior, has gained a total of 938 yards on the ground during his first two seasons at Tennessee, and started half of the Vols games last year as well.
“I think when you’re establishing criteria by position, you want level skill sets. Initially, we want an individual who can make you miss. And not just get what the play is blocked for, but who is consistent and reliable, who takes care of the football and can make plays,” said Jones.
He added, “We’d like a complete pack: an individual who can pass-protect and catch the football in the backfield and run the ball. Obviously, you need some shifty guys who can make guys miss, and you need some downhill runners. I think Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane have running styles that really complement each other. I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen from those two.”
Hunter and Patterson will be playing on Sundays in the Fall. There’s a good chance both are drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.
Those are some big cleats to fill.
When freshman MarQuez North gets to campus, he’ll be looked at not only of the crown jewel of Tennessee’s recruiting class of 2013, but a guy that could make an immediate impact. At 6’3’, 205 pounds, with a 4.48 40 time, North has the tools to be something very special for the Vols.
Vincent Dallas and Pig Howard each had their moments in 2012, and Devrin Young moves to the all important slot receiver position. They’ll both get a lot of attention during spring practice. Overall, that position is big on potential for the Vols. We’ll see if the results follow.
With Rivera gone, the door is wide open for former Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett star Brendan Downs. Can he lock up that starting spot by the time the Orange and White game is played on April 20th?
If there was a group for Jones to be absolutely stoked about going into spring practice, it’s these guys. Four of the top five are seniors with a boatload of experience. “I rely on them. They did a great job. Obviously, having experience back up front in this conference is comforting. The thing I’m uncomfortable with right now is our depth… who’s number six, who’s number seven. Every player is one play away. Look at the great teams and their role understanding. The understanding is that there can be no drop off. Four goes out and as it goes down the line and seven goes in, there can be no drop off. When we have that, we’ll have a successful football team and football program.”
Butch Jones’ quotes courtesy UTSports.com.