The Tennessee Volunteers are one-third of the way through the 2013 season. This year has featured blowouts, turnover extravaganzas and a quarterback switch, but few are surprised by the ending result—a 2-2 record.
The individuals involved in that 2-2 record, though, have been surprising. Sure, the offensive line was going to be good, and yeah, we knew the running backs were experienced and talented. But the youth of the wide receivers and progression of the secondary have been really impressive.
Here are the five players who have surprised us in the early part of the 2013 season.
It's not surprising the talented true freshman is playing well. What is surprising is that Marquez North has immediately become the Volunteers' leading wide receiver.
In Tennessee's first four games, North leads the team in receptions (12) and receiving yards (112). He doesn't yet have his first career touchdown, but you can chalk that up to the subpar quarterback play thus far.
Zach Azzanni, Tennessee's wide receivers coach, stated earlier this year that if a player didn't block as a wide receiver, he simply "wouldn't play at Tennessee." It's this fine art of blocking that often slows or completely derails skilled youngsters.
North hasn't skipped a beat this fall and will only see his production increase with improved quarterback play.
Unfortunately, Justin Worley has surprised us in a bad way this season. Was he presumed to be the next Peyton Manning? Of course not. But a Casey Clausen/Jonathan Crompton-like player seemed reasonable.
Instead, the junior has been an anemic game manager at best.
In three starts this year, Worley has averaged 124 yards and fewer than two touchdowns per game. When you remove the stats of the Austin Peay blowout, those numbers plummet. He had done a good job limiting turnovers until the second half of play in Gainesville, where he tossed two interceptions.
After being named the Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior in South Carolina in 2011, Worley's accolades certainly seemed to warrant excitement for the future. The surprise? Fans are no longer excited.
It's not often a kicker or punter can make you do a double-take, but Michael Palardy has done just that. After three turbulent seasons filled with shanked punts and missed extra points, the senior has been outstanding.
Against the Gators, Palardy capped off an opening second-half drive with a 44-yard field goal that momentarily brought the game within one score. That made him 3-of-3 on the year, as well as 17-of-17 on extra points.
Palardy also has full punting duties. He's averaging 43.8 yards per boot with nary a shank. Couple that production with solid kickoffs, and you have yourself a success story in the formerly unconfident kicker.
After going down with a season-ending knee injury against Florida last year, Brian Randolph made sure he made his mark in this year's bout. The Georgia native racked up 11 tackles, with two for a loss, last Saturday.
Randolph has collected his first two career interceptions this year and is on pace for 75 tackles from his safety position. Most impressively, his closing speed looks better than ever after the knee injury.
Playing alongside a rotation of LaDarrell McNeil, Byron Moore and Max Arnold, Randolph has been the rock the secondary desperately needed last year.
When Riyahd Jones went down with a calf injury before the season started, the starting cornerback job fell to true freshman Cam Sutton. That's just asking for trouble.
SEC offensive coordinators and quarterbacks are notorious for picking on weaknesses in a defensive secondary. You might think that a new starter—a freshman, mind you—would be a weakness, but you'd be wrong.
Sutton has been one of the brightest spots on the defense. He has 10 tackles, one fumble recovery and one interception that he returned 36 yards for a touchdown this year. The last true freshman who had a pick-six was Eric Berry in 2007.
You could easily argue that Sutton has become the best cornerback on the team. With Riyahd Jones returning soon, the Tennessee secondary looks strong thanks to this surprise.