With a new head coach in place, the Tennessee Volunteers won't really know what kind of trajectory they're currently on until the 2015 season. At this point, all the freshmen, sophomores and juniors will have been recruited and developed under Butch Jones. From this group, who could the starters be?
Obviously, attrition, JUCO transfers and outstanding youngsters that will have just arrived in 2015 make these predictions imperfect. There may be a huge commitment tomorrow from a 5-star cornerback that completely changes the outlook of the 2015 season. That's not the point.
The point is answering the question, "Is Tennessee building a program that attracts top-quality coaches and players that will ably compete in the SEC in three years?"
I say yes. Here's why...
Josh Dobbs is already getting some chatter as a potential starter for 2013, so his path to starting quarterback as a junior is easy to envision.
The Georgia native has a prototypical physique for an up-tempo spread offense that Tennessee will be running in full force by 2015. He's mobile but still a pro-style quarterback. He's athletic but highly cerebral.
Dobbs has incredible football intelligence, something that fellow Volunteer commit and high school opponent Ryan Jenkins pointed out in a radio interview with 104-5 The Zone. He wants to major in aerospace engineering while at the University of Tennessee.
(That could also help him determine the optimal trajectory for a 30-yard pass in a windy stadium.)
The kind of game Dobbs brings to Tennessee should remind fans of a certain championship-winning quarterback named Tee Martin.
Remember how big, tall and fast Darren McFadden was at Arkansas? Jalen Hurd is bigger, taller and faster than the eventual first-round NFL draft pick.
And he just finished his junior year of high school.
At 6'3", 220 pounds, Hurd doesn't look like a model running back getting off the bus. He's built like Detroit Lions superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson. I believe Hurd will either be a gifted athlete stuck in the wrong body or a transcendent runner, akin to Bo Jackson or Herschel Walker.
Yeah, I just went there.
Needless to say, having Dobbs orchestrate the offense will only serve to help the true sophomore. Hurd's size will likely allow Butch Jones to move him from running back to wide receiver and even tight end on a couple of plays.
He's a special prospect and a very early contender for the 2016 Heisman Trophy.
The Vols are loading up at wide receiver. Just take a look at the names that won't be starting, and you'll get the picture: Drae Bowles, Cody Blanc, Paul Harris, Vic Wharton, Ryan Jenkins, Josh Smith, Neiko Creamer and Lawrence Lee.
With such a stockpile of talent, it's likely that the three I've named won't all be starters, but they provide Tennessee with the best mix of skills, which gives the offense more weapons.
Marquez North is a stud. He's already the perfect 6'3", 205-pound size and was an All-American last fall, so you know it's not going to waste. His ceiling is achieving as much or more success as Robert Meachem or Justin Hunter.
Jason Croom is a monstrous 6'5", 230 pounds but has the speed and hands to play receiver. He's as big as most tight ends the 2015 Volunteers will play and will command plenty of attention, leaving the door open for North.
Finally, Alton Howard is a perfect slot receiver. At 5'8", 185 pounds, "Pig" already showed his quickness and versatility by taking direct snaps and end-arounds as a true freshman in 2012. As a senior, Pig will be one of the best slots in the SEC.
The Volunteers have had a nice string of tight ends in recent years. From Jason Witten to the Cottam brothers to Luke Stocker and Mychal Rivera, the formally dormant position as awoken for Tennessee.
Daniel Helm should be in the midst of keeping that budding tradition going in 2015.
There will be plenty of competition for him to win the starting job (A.J. Branisel and Ethan Wolf), but his offer sheet is proof enough that he's a special prospect. With plenty of running and catching from other players, Helm will take his value to another level if he can become an excellent blocker for Hurd's bursts and Howard's end-around.
After landing zero offensive tackle recruits in the 2012 class, Butch Jones' staff has quickly regained the Vols' footing at that position. It appears as though the future remains bright for one of Tennessee's best units today.
Antonio Richardson and Ja'Wuan James will leave some enormous shoes to fill, but senior Kyler Kerbyson and junior Austin Sanders should be able to fill them nicely in 2015.
Kerbyson has already been worked into the lineup after a redshirt season in 2011. He hasn't had the chance to play huge minutes behind the elite tackles the Vols have, but 2014 will allow him to get his feet wet before manning the position with experience the following season.
Sanders is considered the Volunteers' second-best 2013 recruit after North. He was also the first commit of the class and remained true during the tumultuous season and coaching change.
Another name to keep an eye on is Orlando Brown. Just a 3-star recruit, according to Rivals.com, Brown was one of those non-elite players who everybody wanted. "Baby Zeus" received nearly 40 offers from school like Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame.
Filling out the interior line in two years will be the junior Dylan Wiesman and sophomore Coleman Thomas.
After a relatively light recruitment, Ohio native Wiesman received the coveted Ohio State offer, giving him high-caliber-prospect-from-the-Buckeye-State stamp of approval. Opposite him will be Thomas from West Virginia.
According to Rivals.com, Thomas is the fourth-ranked center in the 2014 class and is certainly a candidate to fill that role in the future for Tennessee. At 6'6", 295 pounds, the current high school junior will easily grow into SEC guard size by 2015.
After the Vols got accustomed to seeing Zach Fulton, Dallas Thomas and Marcus Jackson man the offensive guards spots for years, Wiesman and Thomas will have high expectations. They should be able to achieve them.
The 2015 offensive line will likely feature just two seniors: the aforementioned Kerbyson and Mack Crowder.
Through two seasons in Knoxville (one redshirt), Crowder has gotten very little playing time but plenty of positive PR with the coaches. This year, he was given the Harvey Robinson Award for most improved offensive player.
Crowder has a good head on shoulders, vitally important for an SEC center. I can personally attest to this as a former tour guide for the University of Tennessee. He and his family are grounded, real people. In two years, Crowder could easily be a Barrett Jones-type of player and leader for the Vols.
Both of these players are high-energy, electric pass-rushers. At least, that's how it has looked in practice, which can only tell so much.
At 17 years old, early enrollee Corey Vereen has done everything you could possibly ask for from a youngster. He was the most outstanding player at the Orange and White Game and has repeatedly been complimented on his quiet, determined focus.
By 2015, Vereen will be even more mature.
Tennessee is currently seeking its other defensive end of the the future, and LaTroy Lewis looks to be the early favorite after coming back from a season-ending injury in 2012. Lewis has a lot of speed and burst around the outside, very similar to Vereen.
Still, the Volunteers haven't fielded a dependable pass rush in a few years, so this could still be a work in progress.
The interior of the defensive line looks to be very talented, like so many other areas on Butch Jones' 2015 squad. Danny O'Brien and Jason Carr were both 4-star recruits, according to Rivals, and received numerous offers.
O'Brien is a big, strong kid from Michigan who redshirted behind Maurice Couch and Daniel McCullers last fall. Both of those tackles were A-grade JUCO recruits, but programs are built for the long haul with high school talent, like O'Brien. He's the lone tackle from 2012 who will be around for Jones' third season.
He'll still be backing up Couch and McCullers in 2013, but he should get the chance to showcase his strength and speed as a lineman.
Carr's commitment was a major coup for Jones in December. Not only was he a highly talented prospect who schools such as LSU, Ole Miss and Nebraska were after, he is a native of the Volunteer-starved city of Memphis. Carr may just be the first in a long line of Memphis Vols.
He's 6'6", 280 pounds, but with three years to build muscle (and eat at Gibbs Hall), Carr will put on at least 20 more pounds and be a very athletic, mobile defensive tackle in 2015.
WARNING: JINX ALERT!
Florida linebacker Dillon Bates, son of Volunteer great Bill Bates, is announcing his commitment at the beginning of July. I do believe he'll pick Tennessee and hope I haven't jinxed it.
(At least I'm not the only one.)
Kenny Bynum had narrowed his college choices down to Tennessee and Butch Jones' Cincinnati team in 2012. He should start his time as a Vol strong after an injury during his freshman season. I expect to see him on the outside.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin is classified as an athlete and slated to play a lot of safety in the early going, but I think his size as well as the team's needs will move him up to linebacker. He's an early enrollee right now, which means by 2015, Reeves-Maybin will be a junior who has had three spring practice seasons.
Finally, the middle will likely be manned by Bates if he commits. If not, either Reeves-Maybin or the defensive end/linebacker Malik Brown would be candidates for the job. Brown was a solid pickup in February, but it's no secret that Bates is a special talent.
Tennessee is blessed with plenty of future candidates for safety. The best two in 2015 will likely be LaDarrell McNeil and Todd Kelly Jr.
McNeil started seven games as a true freshman in 2012, and by 2015, he will be entering his second full season as a stater. He'll spend this fall backing up Brian Randolph and Byron Moore, who when healthy are one of the best safety pairings in the country and can be great mentors.
Kelly is a Vol legacy and elite-level recruit for the 2014 class. He's a Knoxville native, which is exciting for fans but sometimes a lot to handle for a college football player. Hopefully, TKJr will cope well.
Both McNeil and Kelly run 4.5-second 40-yard times and are about 6'1", 190 pounds. Neither mind leveling a blow. By 2015, this could be one of the best duos in recent memory.
Luckily for the 2015 Tennessee Volunteers, their cornerbacks will be more experienced and more polished than the 2013 crew.
Gone will be Justin Coleman and Riyahd Jones and instead the Vols will start the junior Lemond Johnson and sophomore D'Andre Payne.
Johnson flipped his commitment from Auburn to Tennessee after Butch Jones was hired. He also received offers from LSU, NC State and Illinois. Johnson is an early enrollee, so like Corey Vereen, he will be a weathered veteran by 2015.
Payne offers the ability to make game-changing plays from the cornerback position, the likes of which the Vols haven't seen since Jason Allen. He is one of the D.C. area's top prospects for 2014 and has offers from Ohio State, Clemson, Florida State and dozens more.
Including the safeties, the 2015 secondary could be one of the team's strongest units.