Tennessee Volunteers Football: Midseason Grades for Players and Coaches
The Tennessee Volunteers have reached the midpoint of their 2013 season at an even 3-3. While their record is average, some units are inevitably playing above and below average, and I've got their grades right here.
Many of these grades were greatly affected by the overtime loss against Georgia. That game changed the mindset of the team and its fans for the better. Suddenly, wins over other elite teams don't seem so unreasonable.
It's the trajectory of these grades that's most interesting. If I could show the trend of each grade, I don't think one would be moving downward at this point.
I've made it no secret that I'm a supporter and believer in Butch Jones' system. It seems that dozens of the nation's top prospects agree with me.
The players he recruited to the current team—Marquez North, Cam Sutton, Corey Vereen and so on—have been some of the biggest difference makers. His staff's ability to calm kicker/punter Michael Palardy down could win the Volunteers games this season. The virtual seamless transition between running backs coaches was impressive.
Slogans like "Brick by Brick" and "Rise to the Top" not only sound good when you say them, they truly represent his goals. New traditions like end-of-quarter sprints have already been lauded by fans.
His confident and gutsy fourth-down calls against Georgia show that in the right moments, he doesn't mind capturing the win, rather than letting it fall in his lap.
I could go on for days. Jones and his staff are right on point thus far.
Until the second of the Georgia game, this grade was more like a D or F, but the terrific play of Justin Worley in the third and fourth quarters allowed the Volunteers a chance at a Top 10 upset.
Tennessee's quarterbacks (Worley and Nathan Peterman) are averaging 164 passing yards, 1.5 touchdowns and 1.3 interceptions per game while completing 54 percent of their passes halfway through the season. Hardly anything to write home about.
To improve this grade, the quarterbacks need to make a bigger impact on the game, whether it's with a couple of deep shots at key moments or with the occasional keep on the read-option.
Rajion Neal has emerged as much more than a stopgap solution at running back. The senior has become a quality runner, proved by his 616 rushing yards, average of 5.7 yards per carry and seven touchdowns.
Marlin Lane's contributions have been limited by injury, an unfortunate trend with the junior, but when he has played, he's given quality minutes. This unit has turned out to be more reliable than was predicted in the preseason.
To improve the grade, the running backs need to match Neal's intensity. He showed his vastly improved speed during a 4th-and-1 run against Georgia, something he clearly has worked on over his career.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
We've seen youngsters like Marquez North and Josh Smith grow up before our very eyes. Pig Howard, a sophomore, is playing like a fifth-year senior. Brendan Downs is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions. There has even been a few Jason Croom sightings!
The beginning of the season was marred with unfinished routes, dropped passes and missed opportunities, but the tide has changed these past three games. It's no coincidence that the improvement of the wide receivers has mirrored improved quarterback play.
To get that grade up, the receivers and tight ends need to simply do more of what they've been doing. With just 164 total receiving yards per game, they average 10.7 yards per catch. Neal is keeping defenses honest, so there's opportunity to pounce on secondaries peaking in the backfield.
It's taken a while, but the highly touted Tennessee offensive line is starting to show up. Go back and take a look at Neal's seven-yard touchdown run last game. Antonio Richardson and Alex Bullard absolutely demolish the Georgia defensive line on that play, indicative of their massive talent.
The Volunteers are tied for second in the SEC in fewest sacks allowed per game (1.2). The line has always done an excellent job protecting the quarterback in the passing game, but the effectiveness of the running game has shown their skills aren't limited to just pass blocking.
To perfect its grade, the offensive line needs to show it can take over a game. In the heyday of Tennessee football in the 1990s, there were times when the line would dictate the game and close out opponents. This unit can do that, too.
Aside from Vereen, the defensive line has provided no spark. The Vols rank near the bottom in the SEC in sacks at midseason.
Dan McCullers has gobbled up a few running backs here and there, but the preseason All-American certainly hasn't made the impact that many had hoped.
Defensive line coach Steve Stripling has said of McCullers, via Wil Wright of MetroPulse, "Dan is a young man that has unbelievable potential. His future is as wide open as he wants."
Much is expected of the 350-pounder. It's time for Big Dan to unleash.
There have been a number of injuries that have limited the line's production. If the players can get healthy and become more consistent, the grade can go up.
With the news of Curt Maggitt's likely redshirt this season, the average linebacker grade is as much about lost potential as it is about the on-field play. A.J. Johnson leads the team with 47 tackles, and Dontavis Sapp has filled in well for Maggitt, but that's about all the Volunteers are getting.
Brent Brewer is a better fit as linebacker than safety and has been decent, but there's no doubt that the future of the linebackers is what's more exciting about this unit.
With Maggitt taking a redshirt and Jalen Reeves-Maybin doing work on special teams, Tennessee just needs one out of Dillon Bates, Kevin Mouhon and Chris Weatherd to put together an outstanding unit over the next couple of years.
Safety Brian Randolph is the midseason defensive MVP. His recovery from a torn ACL last season has been remarkable, something that people aren't mentioning simply because Randolph has come back so strongly and many have forgotten.
Cam Sutton is showing what the future of the Vols secondary can be: A smart, athletic bunch that faithfully abides by Neyland's Second Maxim. He's surpassed Justin Coleman as top cornerback on the team, and this coming in perhaps Coleman's best season.
The Oregon explosion hurt the secondary, but the unit has settled down since. It'll be challenged to limit big gains from South Carolina this weekend.
The mark of a good coach is the quality of his special teams. This is where true discipline and attention to detail makes the difference between winning and losing. Thus far, the special teams have been a real asset.
Reeves-Maybin has been all over the field on punt and kick off returns. He's also the one who blocked the punt against Georgia.
Oregon squirted free for a couple of big returns, but it might be the nation's best team. Try to think of another blown return for the Volunteers special teams. You can't, because there hasn't been one.
Finally, the play of Palardy has been exceptional, as previously noted.