Tennessee Volunteers Football: Midseason Awards for Players and Coaches
There is still half of the season to play, but the Tennessee Volunteers have had a 2013 campaign worthy of midseason awards. At 4-3, the Vols have competed hard against the SEC East's best, winning one and taking another into overtime. These players and coaches deserve some recognition, so here are some midseason awards.
Even before the South Carolina game, the feeling in Knoxville had changed. After a near-disaster against South Alabama, the Vols found their stride against the No. 6 and No. 11 teams in the country. Due to the terrific play of certain offensive and defensive players, Tennessee finds itself just two wins away from a bowl berth.
In addition to offensive and defensive MVPs, you'll see best play and coach, most improved player, best rookie and most surprising star. These are the guys who've brought life back into the program.
Rajion Neal has nearly 700 rushing yards halfway through the season. He's on track for 1,193.
Since the loss at Florida, Neal has carried the ball 80 times in three games. His ability to convert first downs and keep the clock running against Georgia was a major reason why the Volunteers were able to take the No. 6 Bulldogs to overtime.
A key play in that game was a crucial 4th-and-1 conversion where Neal was hit in the backfield but powered ahead and dove to keep the drive alive in the final quarter of regulation. This kind of effort has been commonplace with the senior in the first half of the season.
Three times this year, Neal has gone for more than 150 rushing yards. His eight touchdowns lead the team by far.
Brian Randolph has come back incredibly strong after missing most of 2012 with a knee injury.
Trailing only A.J. Johnson in team tackles with 46, Randolph also leads all Volunteers with three interceptions. But here's where he tips the scale for midseason Defensive MVP: All three of those interceptions were snagged in Tennessee's end zone.
When the Vols need him most, Randolph is at his best.
He has been able to help LaDarrell McNeil and Cam Sutton into their new starting roles, which has been a seamless transition. Randolph has been a consistent force in the Tennessee secondary.
Marquez North's one-handed catch against No. 11 South Carolina is the Tennessee Volunteers' best play at midseason.
Not only was the 39-yard catch amazing in its own right, but it also came on a crucial 3rd-and-10 with the Vols down by one in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Justin Worley stepped back and looked deep.
The true freshman, with a defender draped all over him, reeled in his third and most important catch of the day. Tennessee went on to kick the game-winning field goal and win their first game over a Top 15 team in six years.
And, oh, yeah, it was a SportsCenter Top 10 play that night.
Butch Freaking Jones. I try hard not to "coach worship," but I'll admit to getting carried away with this new coach from Saugatuck, Mich. He's the real deal.
Jones salvaged a top-25 recruiting class after taking over in December 2012 for one of the worst coaches in school history. He then began working on the 2014 class, which now stands at No. 2 in the nation. This comes at a time when the Vols have had three consecutive losing seasons.
On the field, he has made former afterthoughts integral parts of winning football. For instance, Michael Palardy has vastly improved under Jones. Daniel McCullers is beginning to realize his full potential.
Jones' own freshmen recruits are the ones making the biggest plays. From Marquez North's catch to Cam Sutton's interceptions to Jalen Reeves-Maybin's stellar special teams play, it's obvious Jones knows the kind of players who excel, and he's bringing them to Tennessee.
Most Improved Player
Michael Palardy is not only the most improved player, but he's also one of the top five players on the entire team right now.
Just one season removed from losing his starting job to a walk-on, Palardy has become one of the most dependable guys on the field. He took over full-time kickoff, punting and kicking duties this preseason.
Palardy responded to Butch Jones' efforts to keep him relaxed and focused by hitting all 27 of his extra points and eight of his 10 field-goal attempts at midseason.
He's booted 35 punts for 1,556 yards, tops in the SEC. His six punts inside the 20 against South Carolina were key in the upset win.
Rookie of the Year
Marquez North is hands down the midseason Rookie of the Year. He might already be the best wide receiver on the team.
If he isn't, he shares that title with sophomore Pig Howard, who has contributed more in the receiver sweep aspect of the offense. But North has made numerous impressive catches already in his young career, and it's only a sign of things to come.
With 281 yards, North leads all Tennessee receivers at the halfway point. His improvement has been exponential, and he's on track to be the next in the Robert Meachem/Justin Hunter/Cordarrelle Patterson lineage.
Cam Sutton stepped into the void left by Riyahd Jones when he was shut down in the preseason with injured calves.
Many were afraid the true freshman would be picked on, especially early in the season by offensive guru Bobby Petrino. After getting burned on a quick screen against Western Kentucky early in the game, Sutton responded with a perfect read of the same play minutes later.
Since then, Sutton has been as steady as his counterpart, Justin Coleman, a junior. He has displayed good quickness and great football intelligence at the highly difficult cornerback position.
He's a future star in the Vols secondary.