Monthly Archives: December 2013

Tennessee football position preview: Quarterback battle is wide open

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The fourth in a series of position-by-position reviews of the Tennessee football team with an eye toward the start of spring practice in three months.

Tennessee quarterbacks in practice (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee used three of its four quarterbacks this year, so perhaps it’s predictable that the one quarterback who didn’t play is the fan favorite to win the job in 2014.

Redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson does, in fact, have a strong chance of earning the No. 1 spot, but the race should be every bit as wide open as it was over the summer.

Justin Worley, who will be a senior, had two solid games in October when the Vols were playing their best. Joshua Dobbs got valuable experience after Worley was hurt. Nathan Peterman will have to overcome a rough performance at Florida.

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Tennessee football position preview: Receivers will face competition from new faces

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The third in a series of position-by-position reviews of the Tennessee football team with an eye toward the start of spring practice in three months.

Receivers coach Zach Azzanni (right) talks to offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian during practice. (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, TennesseeMarquez North emerged as a big-play threat in his freshman season with the Vols.

In an offense that struggled to throw downfield, he was sometimes the only big-play threat.

The good news is that North was still raw for much of his debut season and he should improve after a year of coaching.

Alton “Pig” Howard should hold down the slot position if he stays focused on off-the-field responsibilities. Coaches thought he turned a corner in maturity in the 2013 season, but they still have some lingering concerns about his ability to lead by example.

Jason Croom and Josh Smith shared the third receiver spot, although Croom began to pull away as the season progressed. I’m told there are no plans to move Croom to tight end, where he had worked some earlier in his career.

Only two players are leaving (see below). Vincent Dallas departed mid-season, while Josh Harris was the most surprisingly of the three players who were given their release earlier this month.

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Dallas had bounced between receiver and defensive back during his career. Harris was only a freshman, but his best chance to make an impact may have already come and gone during 2013.

There are reinforcements coming.

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10 best SEC games ever broadcast on CBS? Vols-Gators game in 2001 lands at No. 9

Travis Stephens dives over the goal line in the first quarter of the Vols’ victory over Florida in 2001. (News-Sentinel file photo by Michael Patrick)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Are we in a golden era for SEC football?

This list would seem to suggest that we are.

CBS Sports Network will run a countdown of the 10 best SEC games broadcast by CBS starting on Dec. 26 at 8 p.m.

The list was selected by a panel of experts, presumably including writers Bruce Feldman, Dennis Dodd, Jeremy Fowler and Tony Barnhart.

The first thing that stands out about the list is how many of the game occurred in just the last three years. Also, notice how many times Auburn and Alabama are included. I figure that’s appropriate for a state that is going for its fifth consecutive national title next month.

Tennessee makes the list with its thrilling 2001 victory over Florida. Current UT running backs coach Robert Gillespie was a senior on that Gators squad.

Here’s the full list, with game descriptions from CBS:

10. No. 1 Alabama at No. 6 Texas A&M (9/14/2013) – Airs Thursday, Dec. 26, 8 p.m.

Alabama got revenge on Texas A&M with a 49-42 win in College Station behind AJ McCarron’s four passing touchdowns. Not to be outdone, Johnny Manziel threw for five touchdowns and registered 562 yards of total offense.

9. No. 4 Tennessee at No. 2 Florida (12/1/2001) – Airs Friday, Dec. 27, 8 p.m.

Tennessee visits Gainesville as 17.5-point underdogs and upsets Florida to jump into national title contention. The Vols stop the Gators’ two-point conversion attempt with 1:10 left to seal a 34-32 victory.

8. No. 1 LSU at No. 12 Alabama (11/5/2011) – Airs Saturday, Dec. 28, 5 p.m.

The “Game of the Century” didn’t feature any touchdowns, but it had an exciting finish in prime time as LSU defeated Alabama 9-6 on a 25-yard field goal in overtime.

7. SEC Championship: No. 4 Florida vs. No. 1 Alabama (12/6/2008) – Airs Saturday, Dec. 28, 8 p.m. 

Tim Tebow’s three touchdowns lead Florida to a 31-20 upset win over Alabama and gives the Gators a shot at their second national title in three years.

6. No. 15 Texas A&M at No. 1 Alabama (11/10/2012) – Airs Sunday, Dec. 29, 5 p.m.
Johnny Manziel is spectacular in leading Texas A&M past top-ranked Alabama in the Aggies’ first ever trip to Tuscaloosa.

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Tennessee football position preview: Running backs will lean on Marlin Lane, Jalen Hurd

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The second in a series of position-by-position reviews of the Tennessee football team with an eye toward the start of spring practice in three months.

Rajion Neal celebrates with fans after the Vols beat Kentucky earlier this month (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — It’s been nearly a decade since Tennessee had more rushing yards than the Vols did in 2013.

While that distinction may speak to the lack of a passing game in this year’s offense, it also speaks to the strength of the Vols’ experienced offensive line and running back duo.

The line will be gone in 2014, but veteran running back Marlin Lane will return. Instead of longtime partner Rajion Neal, Lane will likely be paired with true freshman Jalen Hurd, a five-star prospect who is expected to play an immediate role in the offense.

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Neal is the big loss off the 2013 roster. Reserve Tom Smith also parted ways with the program after the semester.

Smith did well in garbage time roles in 2013, but never threatened for meaningful playing time. Alden Hill seems likely to be in the same role and he must cement his value on special teams in order to be a factor moving forward.

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Tennessee football position preview: Offensive line starting anew, but Marcus Jackson could help ease transition

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The first in a series of position-by-position reviews of the Tennessee football team with an eye toward the start of spring practice in three months.

Antonio “Tiny” Richardson opted to leave early for the NFL (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — It’s appropriate to begin our series of offseason previews with the offensive line. Perhaps no other position will have a bigger impact on the Vols’ success or failure in 2014.

In 2013, the Vols not only had five experienced starters, but they had five players who had worked together as a unit for at least two years.

The Vols are losing all five starters, who accounted for roughly 92 percent of all snaps taken this year. The potential replacements are green.

The offense might not have been as prolific as hoped, but the line helped power a running game that kept UT afloat when other options failed. At least three of the linemen will be in the NFL next year.

The line was also remarkably durable. Ja’Wuan James set records for longevity. None of this teammates missed any significant time this year.

As you can see from the chart below, the Vols are replacing a lot of starts and a lot of combined experience.

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Butch Jones: Vols’ depth problems on offensive line won’t be solved in just 1 class

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KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee has answered so many of its needs in the still-ongoing 2014 recruiting cycle, that the one need that remains unanswered still stands out.

That would be the offensive line, where a couple of years of lean recruiting has led to some gaps at a position at which Butch Jones has said he’d like to have 15 players.

That might not happen until 2015.

“We are down an entire recruiting class in the offensive line position, numbers wise,” Jones said Thursday. “The thing that we have to guard against in this recruiting class is we cannot fix all of our deficiencies in a recruiting class. It takes time. You can only bring in so many players.”

A few new developments have occurred since the last time we reviewed the Class of 2014. The Vols signed three junior college players on Wednesday, but missed out on DaVonte Lambert, who signed with Auburn.

That drops the Vols’ number of overall verbal commitments and signees to 33. That’s within range of 30, the number of scholarships many believe UT has available for this class. (You can read all about the numbers saga here).

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Departure of 3 players slims Vols’ scholarship roster for new arrivals to come (with updated roster)

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KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — The expected attrition on Tennessee’s roster is already under way.

Running back Tom Smith, defensive back Tino Thomas and receiver Paul Harris are moving on and have been given releases to transfer to other programs.

The only mild surprise among those three players is Harris, who arrived in January to lofty praise from coaches. But he struggled mightily in spring and never was able to turn a corner in the fall. With an influx of new receivers on the way, his best chance at playing time had already come and gone.

Thomas was a grayshirt who signed in 2011 but delayed his enrollment until 2012. He finally played a few games on special teams in 2013, but his contributions were limited beyond that.

Smith actually did quite well in garbage-time opportunities in spring and some early-season games. But his chances of ever having a meaningful role as a running back were slim. And unlike fellow reserve running back Alden Hill, Smith never caught on as a special-teamer.

There could be more departures to come, of course, but the Vols already have plenty of breathing room under the 85-man scholarship limit. By my unofficial count, the Vols have 55 players on scholarship, but that includes some former walk-ons who could be dropped back down to walk-on status.

Even beyond that, there are plenty of other candidates for attrition among scholarship players. But coaches won’t have to press that issue until the summer.

As Vols wait on word from DaVonte Lambert, a look at UT’s 3 juco signees in the fold (videos)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Junior college defensive end DaVonte Lambert is expected to choose between Tennessee and Auburn at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, but three other signees are already in the fold.

All three of the new Vols could play an important role in 2014. Von Pearson (in the top video) is a 6-foot-3 wideout from Virginia who spent the last two years at California junior college. Along with freshman signee Josh Malone, he’s expected to fight for a spot in the receiver rotation from Day 1.

Offensive tackle Dontavius Blair (below) is a 6-foot-8 giant who the Vols are hoping will lock down one of the five vacancies on the offensive line this spring.

Owen Williams (below) isn’t as highly rated as the first two prospects, but he plays defensive tackle, where the Vols urgently need bodies.

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Devrin Young’s quiet — but remarkable — 2013 season

Devrin Young warms up before a game earlier this season (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Wide receiver Devrin Young‘s junior season at Tennessee was slowed by a hand injury.

The Knoxville native had a hard time cracking the rotation at slot receiver, where he was behind starter Alton “Pig” Howard and impressive newcomer Johnathon Johnson.

Most of Young’s playing time came as a punt returner.

But a review of the News Sentinel’s snap-by-snap database shows that Young maximized every snap he played on the field.

Snaps per game
Auburn 3
Austin Peay 9
Kentucky 13
South Carolina 3
Vanderbilt 3
Total 31

Young played only 31 offensive snaps in 2013. When Young was on the field, the Vols collected 336 yards. That’s an average of 10.84 yards per play. No one else on the roster was even close to that mark.

Obviously, the small sample size is important here. And this statistic is more a curiosity than anything meaningful.

But it’s still amazing the way that Young had a knack for being on the field when the Vols’ offense made a big play.

Young was on the field for gains of 32, 43, 40 and 37 yards.

But it wasn’t only big plays that skewed his numbers. Young was on the field for 13 plays of 10 yards or greater. 

One more crazy stat: Young finished the year with six catches for 79 yards.

That means he caught a pass on 19 percent of the snaps in which he participated. He was on the field for only 14 pass plays, meaning he caught a pass on 43 percent of those snaps.

What does this mean for Young’s future? Perhaps not much.

Young will be a senior in 2014, and with an influx of new receivers arriving this spring and summer, Young will have to fight for every snap he gets in his last season.

But he deserves credit for making the best use of every moment he was on the field in 2013.