Senior quarterback Justin Worley was named the starter, and that was all but a given after Riley Ferguson left. Worley showed he’s competent, albeit not great, at managing the offense. In fact, one major mistake by Jones his first year was trying to bench Worley against Florida, a game the Vols could have won had backup Nathan Peterman not had so many royal screw ups. If he had done that, and Worley had stayed healthy the entire, season, Florida and Vanderbilt would have been two more wins. So as long as Worley stays healthy, he’s not a guy who’s going to wow anybody, but he’s good enough to get the job done. If he gets injured again, well, good luck Vol Nation. Peterman and Josh Dobbs looked awful last year in his place, so it’s tough to tell how much improvement they have made.
The running back position would appear to take a hit with Raijon Neal gone after 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns. It won’t. Senior Marlin Lane should fill that void just fine, and it’s worth noting he managed more than 500 yards last year on the ground and a 5.3 yards per carry average, so he’s more than capable of shouldering the load. Senior Devrin Young is a dark horse weapon here who could be used as an all-purpose player, including kick returner and receiver. But the big story here lies with the freshmen, mainly 5-star Jalen Hurd. He has already earned the approval of his teammates and Coach Jones, to the point that about the only thing said about him so far is he’s not “Superman.” He also received a stamp of approval from former great Vol running back Jamal Lewis, who knows what it’s like to rack up yards as a freshman, something he did behind Peyton Manning in 1997. Lane will get the start for some seniority, but look for Hurd to play a lot this year. This is a superstar already in the making. If that’s not enough, freshman Derrell Scott has already impressed the coaches in practice as well. This unit as a whole is deeper and has more raw talent than last year, and it’s equally as experienced at the top of the depth chart. Don’t expect any fall-off just because Neal is gone.
If you thought the running back position was set, wait until you get a load of who is back at receiver. How about, everybody. Should I add that none of the returning regular contributors are seniors either? What if I told you three of the top four were sophomores, and Jones has also brought in two more freshmen that could play immediately this year? Does that give you a sense of just how young, and loaded, this position is for the future? It’s all but certain Tennessee will return to being Wide Receiver U, but who gets the bulk of the action this year? It looks like sophomore Marquez North could be the top receiver, which is great news since he stands at 6’4″ and has already shown himself to be a major playmaker after the biggest catch of the season last year, a one-handed grab to set up the game winning field goal against South Carolina. Junior College transfer Von Pearson appears to be another first-teamer, and at 6’3″ the 4-star junior is an addition that provides great size among the first teamers. Junior Alton “Pig” Howard will be a deadly weapon lining up in the slot, regardless of who starts on the outside, at 5’8″ with lightning speed. But there is still a plethora of weapons here. Sophomore Jason Croom is still in the mix, and he also provides unique size at 6’5″ 234 pounds, and watch out for Josh Malone. A 5-star freshman who stands at 6’3″, he has the most raw potential of the bunch and could make an immediate impact just like Hurd at running back. The position becomes even more complicated because sophomore Josh Smith and 4-star freshman Vic Wharton have been raising eyebrows in practice, so it appears to be very hard to pick the main receivers with such a loaded roster. Junior Cody Blanc’s season ending injury is not a big deal because of this. You also have junior Johnathon Johnson and senior Jacob Carter, so this unit is incredibly deep, talented, and has a very bright future. It should be much better than last year. It also helps that senior tight end Brendan Downs is back after battling injuries last year, and juniors A.J. Branisel and Alex Ellis provide experience and depth there. Look for freshman Daniel Helm to immediately have an impact as well. He’s the tight end of the future, and like the receiver position, makes this a very deep unit that is set.
As loaded as the Vols are at receiver, the exact opposite has happened on the line: everybody is gone. Luckily, Jones still recruited very well here too. In a surprise addition of depth, freshman Jashon Robertson has surprisingly launched himself into the starting right guard position, surprising everybody in practice and adding much needed and unexpected depth at the position. The rest of the first team right now appears to be senior Jacob Gilliam at left tackle, junior Marcus Jackson at left guard, junior Mack Crowder at center, and junior Kyler Kerbyson at right tackle. Jackson was highly recruited and has the most experience after five starts last year, and Crowder has seen a good bit of action as well. But the position battles everywhere else are not finished. Dontavius Blair is a 4-star junior college transfer who will probably take Gilliam’s spot eventually, and he’s a very welcome addition up front. Sophomore Dylan Wiesman could also work his way into the rotation at guard or center. Either way, these are seven sure players to get a good bit of playing time, and redshirt freshmen Brett Kendrick and Austin Sander should provide depth along with true freshman Coleman Thomas. The line may be extremely inexperienced and very raw, so a drop-off has to be expected here. But there is still some talent and a lot of raw young players to make a very deep unit that is set for at least the next two years.
The offense as a whole is so loaded at the skill positions that, despite the drop-off on the line, it should be better than last year. Having Worley back at quarterback on top of that should make this unit much better than it was last year, so barring injury, expect it to dramatically increase in scoring. Continue to Next Slide for Defense