The Tennessee Volunteers are 98 days away from the kickoff of the 2013 college football season. It will be an important year for new head coach Butch Jones, both for recruiting and overall program-rebuilding. His first class, the 2013 recruits, features at least five players that could potentially start from day one.
After the worst three-year stretch in 100 years, the Big Orange needs to get to the six-win threshold so that they can play in the postseason for the first time since 2010. I believe the team can get seven or even eight wins, but only if certain holes are filled.
Off the top of Vol fans' heads, wide receiver is a glaring weakness after losing two top-35 picks to April's NFL draft. But cornerback, defensive line and the all-important quarterback position are just a few others that offer incoming freshmen a chance at playing time, or even a starting spot.
Tennessee's 2013 freshmen will make the difference in earning either a bowl-winning season or succumbing to an unprecedented fourth consecutive losing season.
The jewel of the 2013 recruiting class was undoubtedly Marquez North. The Charlotte native was the No. 2 rated wide receiver in the country according to Rivals.com and had offers from schools such as Ohio State, LSU and Oregon.
His exploits at Mallard Creek High School earned him U.S. Army All-American honors, as well as a 4-star rating from Rivals.
Though just a freshman this fall, North already sports the prototypical physique of an elite college pass-catcher at 6'3", 205 pounds. Even though he's never played a down in the SEC, North might very well be the Volunteers' best receiver.
Gone to the NFL is the dynamic duo of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. Left is Vincent Dallas, Alton Howard, Jacob Carter and Devrin Young as the only Vol wide receivers that caught a pass in 2012.
While redshirt freshmen Drae Bowles and Jason Croom showed some promise in the spring, it's North that everyone will be watching this summer.
Because of his talent, combined with Tennessee's dire need, North has the best chance of any freshmen to start this fall.
Tennessee is both thin and weak at cornerback. Obviously, that means smart, engaged freshmen have an excellent chance to play a lot and maybe even start.
Justin Coleman, the best corner on the Volunteers defense, has exactly zero interceptions in two years. While he's likely going to be a consistent starter this fall, his lack of production makes his starting spot far from secure, especially if a new guy can provide more spark.
Riyahd Jones, a JUCO recruit, was brought in specifically as a stopgap for 2013. With offers from schools like Ole Miss, West Virginia and Kansas State, Jones' offer sheet was impressive for a community college transfer.
Still, both cornerback positions can be had. Incoming corners Lemond Johnson and Cameron Sutton can certainly vie for a spot on the field as freshmen.
Johnson was a former Auburn commit that flipped when Butch Jones (and specifically, former Auburn coach Willie Martinez) arrived in Knoxville. Johnson is an early enrollee and participated fully in spring practice.
Sutton is a similar recruit to Johnson: good size, decent speed, so-so offer list and a 3-star Rivals rating. Keep your eye on how he progresses through the summer.
Tennessee's depth chart currently shows Marlon Walls (one sack in 31 games) as the starting end opposite Jacques Smith. If Vereen can continue to develop and not lose his drive, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him starting in 2013.
Butch Jones has said that Vereen is "the type of individual that we want to recruit to come here." It doesn't get much plainer than that. The coaches are impressed.
Jones also said later that the linebacker-turned-defensive end needs to get bigger. At 6'2", 230 pounds, Vereen could stand to put on another 10 to 15 pounds to help shake blocks and do what he does best—cause chaos.
Last month, I made the case for Josh Dobbs to be the starting quarterback this fall.
However, I still believe that what's best for the Volunteers is for junior Justin Worley to step up and take command of the team, but Tennessee left spring practice without such a coup and without a definite starting quarterback.
Redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman had found favor in the eyes of Butch Jones before when he was recruited to Cincinnati. Another quarterback, freshman Riley Ferguson, had offers from Alabama, Michigan and Clemson.
But it's the mobility of Dobbs, coupled with his extraordinary intelligence, that makes him the most interesting possibility. He was a two-sport high school star who fielded offers from schools as varied in academic and athletic prowess as Tennessee, Harvard, Arizona State and Princeton.
Butch Jones has found great success in using the athleticism of his quarterbacks in the past, and Dobbs is by far the best athlete of the bunch. If he can consume the playbook and take the reigns of this team, the job could be his.