Tennessee Football: Midseason Grades for the Vols New Starters
The Tennessee Vols had to replace virtually their entire passing offense and revamp their historically inept defense following Derek Dooley's final season.
Now, sitting at 3-3 midway through 2013, the Vols are exactly where most figured they'd be under first-year coach Butch Jones. They've lost to Oregon, Florida and Georgia. They've beaten Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and South Alabama.
UT nearly got upset by the Jaguars after a second-half letdown and nearly upset the No. 6 Bulldogs with a second-half surge.
Through it all, the Vols are within striking distance of a bowl game with a solid second half of the season, but they need to get production from new faces who've been playing all over the field. Eleven new regular starters dot the Tennessee lineup—some of which have been consistent and some that appear to be making strides and improving.
Let's take a look at all of those new players and assign them a mid-term grade.
Cameron Sutton, CB
The Jonesboro, Ga. native was thrust into the starting lineup out of necessity, but he has simply thrived there because he's an incredible talent.
The former high school three-sport star was coveted by teams like Auburn and Florida, but he elected to stick with his original commitment to UT through a coaching change. All Sutton has done is become the Vols' best freshman defensive back since Eric Berry.
Sutton has shutdown corner skills, and he has done so against a tough schedule with teams targeting him because of his youth. The 6'1", 180-pound defender leads the team with five pass break-ups and also has 21 tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception returned for a score.
He possesses great size, speed and technique and will be a stalwart in UT's secondary for a long time.
Brent Brewer, OLB
The player who has benefited most from the switch back to a 4-3 scheme is outside linebacker Brent Brewer.
The former minor league baseball player's UT career has been all over the place. As a 22-year-old freshman safety, some were projecting Brewer as an NFL player. But through scheme changes, a knee injury and bouncing back and forth between linebacker and safety, Brewer never reached that potential.
Left for bench fodder during Derek Dooley's tenure, Brewer has enjoyed a resurgence as a 25-year-old senior. His play likely will allow UT to redshirt Curt Maggitt without missing much production.
Brewer is eighth on the team with 15 tackles and has been a big playmaker with two interceptions, 1.5 tackles for a loss, two quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a touchdown. He is still a bit raw in recognizing coverages, getting lined up and is just average in run defense, but Brewer is still exceeding everybody's expectations as a starter.
Dontavis Sapp, OLB
From never seeing the field under Derek Dooley to never leaving it under Butch Jones, Dontavis Sapp's career certainly has taken a turn.
His production is proving it is downright sad that the 6'2", 227-pound senior had never been given the opportunity to be anymore than a special teams star before this season.
Sapp was a lightly recruited 2-star prospect out of Valdosta (Ga.) High School when Dooley signed him for class depth back in 2009, but he made plays almost every time he reached the field.
This season, he and A.J. Johnson basically play every single defensive snap. His football acumen makes it impossible to remove him. He is all over the field making plays and is third on the Vols with 33 tackles. He also has three tackles for a loss, three hurries, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
An argument could be made that Sapp is Tennessee's defensive MVP thus far.
Corey Miller, DE
Corey Miller was so heavily recruited out of high school that former UT coach Lane Kiffin dispatched hostesses to watch him and former Byrnes (S.C.) High teammate Brandon Willis play football in what became a NCAA scandal.
Yet, his college career hasn't played out the way UT hoped.
The 6'3", 265-pound defensive end has mostly been a reserve throughout his career until this season. Now, he's a regular starter who has 14 total tackles, two sacks and two more quarterback hurries. His resurgence led coach Butch Jones to praise him last week.
According to Patrick Brown of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Jones had this to say about Miller:
Corey Miller’s an individual who is playing at a very high level right now. When I watch him from last year, he’s not even the same football player. He’s playing with a lot of confidence, and what I enjoy is you can see the confidence because it spills over into the way they practice and their practice habits.
Miller is solid, but he still isn't the edge-rushing presence UT needs. He has improved greatly, though, and is having the best year of his career. Given how bad the Vols' defensive ends have been recently, he's better than anything they've had lately.
Josh Smith, WR
Few FBS teams recruited Josh Smith out of the Christian Academy of Knoxville. Basically, it was Tennessee and then Arkansas once former UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney that went there.
The hometown product drew rave reviews during preseason drills for his route-running ability and his hands. So far, he has been consistent enough to split starts with redshirt freshman Jason Croom, but Smith's "Stickum hands" have let him down at times.
The 6'1", 193-pound target has too many drops, but he also has made some big plays, including a 51-yarder against Oregon. For the year, Smith has 10 catches for 164 yards and a touchdown—pretty pedestrian numbers.
He will be a very good receiver at UT, but he isn't there yet.
Jason Croom, WR
At 6'5", 223 pounds, Jason Croom is a specimen at receiver, yet the redshirt freshman has struggled with his consistency.
Croom will make a nice-looking play one moment, then he'll disappear for the remainder of the game. He has eight total catches for 110 yards and a score this season. If you could put Croom's strengths (size, athleticism) with Josh Smith's (hands, route-running), you'd have a star receiver.
Neither has polished those inconsistencies yet, however.
With UT's struggles in the passing game, it needs guys like Croom, Smith and true freshman Marquez North to emerge as weapons, but they simply haven't done it yet. There is a massive amount of potential in Croom, and he's still really young.
If he ever breaks out, the Vols will have a good one. That hasn't happened yet.
Alton 'Pig' Howard, WR
Alton "Pig" Howard is beginning to emerge as the best offensive player on Tennessee's football team.
That is what makes the sophomore's maximum-effort fumble in overtime that cost UT possession and ultimately, the Georgia game, even more gut-wrenching.
Howard was the Vols' top playmaker against the Dawgs, and his future is excitingly moving forward. The ultra-competitive Howard took the turnover tough after the game, leading his teammates and UT fans to pick him up.
Quarterback Justin Worley told The Daily Beacon's Steven Cook after the game:
"(Howard's) beating himself up right now," Worley said. "But we're only halfway through the season. He can't let that affect anything else he's doing because he's played phenomenally for us in the past few weeks."
After Howard's 116 yards on 10 touches against UGA, he now has 298 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns for the Vols. He's just now scraping the surface of his potential.
Marquez North, WR
The Charlotte product was one of the top-ranked wide receivers in the nation out of Mallard Creek High School, and he was expected to be an immediate-impact player for UT.
It hasn't exactly happened that way as of yet.
North's highlight-reel, toe-dragging touchdown against UGA was his first score of the season. Even though he has a team-leading 18 catches for 179 yards, North hasn't been the explosive player UT hoped it was getting just yet.
At 6'4", 215 pounds, North certainly looks the part, and he's getting better as the season matures. But Tennessee needs much more consistency in all facets of the game from him and also needs him to blossom into a star if the Vols are going to win important games down the stretch.
Ideally, the Vols could have brought North along slowly this season, but they haven't had that luxury. North's progression is that of a normal freshman receiver. He is still going to be excellent, but he hasn't been just yet.
Alex Bullard, G
Alex Bullard's career started at Notre Dame, and the Franklin, Tenn., native transferred closer to home to be near his family as his father battled an ultimately fatal illness, as detailed beautifully here by former Knoxville News-Sentinel writer Austin Ward.
The 6'2", 302-pound senior guard has been understandably aloof at times throughout his three years in Knoxville, but he has been in the offensive line rotation ever since as well. Now focused, Bullard is playing the best football of his career.
He mostly grades out fairly well on game film, and though Bullard is the last player you think of on UT's vaunted offensive line, he performed well enough in the preseason to beat out junior Marcus Jackson. That was good for him and good for the Vols, who are trying to redshirt Jackson to tier depth for the next couple of seasons on the offensive front.
For that reason alone, Bullard is worth a good grade.
Brendan Downs, TE
Tennessee has been blessed with some incredibly good tight ends over recent years. Jason Witten set the precedent, and NFL players like Brad Cottam, Luke Stocker and Mychal Rivera followed.
Brendan Downs hasn't been that kind of impact player at the position.
The 6'5", 248-pound junior from nearby Bristol is a good blocker and adequate pass-catcher, but he hasn't been what Butch Jones and crew had hoped. As a matter of fact, true freshman A.J. Branisel is taking reps away from Downs because of his pass-catching ability.
With two star tight end recruits coming in next season in Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolfe, Downs needs to elevate his game. His blocking ability will keep him on the field, but he won't ever be flashy. Downs has shown a propensity to get into the end zone, with two touchdowns through six games.
Justin Worley, QB
Justin Worley opened some eyes with a brilliant second half against Georgia that nearly helped Tennessee pull out a come-from-behind win.
In that game, the junior was seven of eight passing for 112 yards on third and fourth downs, and he stepped up in the pocket and made crucial throws at important times in the game.
While UT is hoping that great game is a sign of things to come, Worley simply hasn't been good overall this year. He lost his job to Nathan Peterman, won it back and then sputtered against South Alabama after regaining it.
Worley has completed 55.8 percent of his passes this season for 940 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. Even with the good game against the Dawgs' struggling defense, Tennessee is last in the conference in passing offense, total offense and passing efficiency.
Those numbers have to improve drastically. Though Worley's job looks safe for now, he has to take the next step in his development process. Georgia moved him out of a failing grade, and he looks to be bringing up this mid-term grade if he continues to progress.