Tennessee Football: 10 Players with Most to Gain in Spring Practices
Spring practice kicks off for the Tennessee Volunteers on March 7, and there hasn't been a more highly anticipated session in more than a decade.
It would be difficult to find any program in the country that has more excitement surrounding it than Tennessee does, even in the wake of four consecutive losing seasons.
Fourteen newcomers will bring a serious injection of much-needed talent, and with so many players exhausting their eligibility from Derek Dooley's disastrous three-year tenure, it truly is the dawn of a new era on Rocky Top.
If all 32 UT signees make it to Knoxville, 54 of the 85 scholarship players on the 2014 roster will have been recruited by Butch Jones before the first snap of his second season. That's a ridiculous roster flip, but given the lean years at UT, the changes are tinted with positivity.
There will be a quarterback battle, excitement surrounding highly touted mid-termers and a sense of urgency among returning players needing to make a serious statement. Competition breeds better football.
So, let's take a look at the 10 players who stand to benefit the most from spring practice on The Hill.
The program savior is always the next in line.
That message board buzz-worthy distinction this year goes to redshirt freshman quarterback Riley Ferguson, who has the talent and personality to be an X-factor for the Vols as they search for a signal-caller to take charge.
Even though (and perhaps because) he's the only scholarship quarterback on the roster who hasn't played, Ferguson is the one fans are most excited to see in this spring's derby.
Rising senior Justin Worley and Ferguson's classmate Joshua Dobbs got most of the playing time last year, and it's just as big a spring for them and Nathan Peterman in the wide-open battle.
But for the fans who are clamoring for "Fergy," they'll get their first extended look at him this spring. The Charlotte, N.C. native was actually ahead of Dobbs on the depth chart in 2013 when a leg injury during Alabama week kept him out for the rest of the year.
He has the talent to unseat the favorite, Worley, but how much of this hope is hype?
Jalen Hurd is Tennessee's most highly anticipated commitment since Bryce Brown pledged to Lane Kiffin in 2009, but he won't just be handed the starting running back spot.
The Vols have a runner in senior Marlin Lane who has proven he can be effective in the SEC, having run for 1,192 yards in relief of Rajion Neal the past two seasons. They also have Alden Hill returning, as well as Justis Pickett and Devrin Young, who could factor into the rotation.
But Hurd is a far superior talent.
He is coming off a shoulder surgery that sidelined him for the vast majority of his senior season at Beech High in Hendersonville, Tenn., but he is expected to be cleared to participate in spring drills, according to The Tennessean's Maurice Patton.
Hurd has been assigned the jersey No. 1. Butch Jones told Patton:
He makes the '1' kinda stretch out longways. The great thing about Jalen is his size, but he runs like a 6-foot running back just in terms of some of the skill development things. He can really lower his center of gravity. We’re really looking forward to what he can do when practice starts.
If Hurd can stay healthy and learn all the peripheral things, such as pass blocking and route-running, he will have a huge role. That begins this spring.
Through the first three years of his career, Kyler Kerbyson has been a Swiss Army-type, do-it-all offensive lineman for the Vols.
But now entering his redshirt junior season, this spring is pivotal for the former Knoxville Catholic School product to prove that he can be depended on to start rather than just being a super reserve.
Coaches love their guard situation with Kerbyson, Marcus Jackson and Dylan Wiesman, but Kerbyson is likely on the outside looking in the current battle to start. He also has the versatility to play right tackle, though at 6'4", 306 pounds, he doesn't quite have the athleticism for the exterior.
Kerbyson can play pretty much anywhere along the front and will have plenty of reps regardless of whether he starts or not. But, obviously, he wants to be among the team's five best linemen that they trot onto the field for the Utah State game.
Playing time is wide open for the whole line, and despite his immense value, Kerbyson needs to show coaches this spring that he can be consistently dependable enough to win a starting spot.
Von Pearson has flown under the radar since enrolling in January, much the way he did during the recruiting process.
That's fine with the Vols, who expect to unleash a talented junior college transfer with elite speed and ball skills this spring.
With a crowded receiving corps already on campus and highly touted freshman Josh Malone also being a mid-term enrollee, Pearson is going to really have to stand out to earn meaningful reps. But given his skill set, he is going to have a chance to prove he is the real deal.
There already is a buzz surrounding him in individual and team workouts, and at 6'3", 185 pounds, Pearson appears to have the full package to make an immediate impact.
One look at his HUDL film shows all you need to see about his level of talent. Playing for Feather River (Calif.) Community College last year, he had more than 200 receiving yards in a game on five occasions, including single-game totals of 311, 237, 235, 222 and 201 yards.
The SEC isn't California junior college, but talent is talent.
Tennessee's top special teamer will get an extended look as a starting outside linebacker this spring.
Clarksville native Jalen Reeves-Maybin was a highly touted recruit out of Northeast High School, and he made an immediate impact blowing downfield on kicks and punts and making big plays. He led the team with 11 special-teams tackles.
But can that big-play knack translate on defense?
Though "JRM" was recruited as a safety, he has bulked up enough to play outside linebacker and seemed to find a home at the position toward the end of 2013.
Listed at just 6'1", 210 pounds, it would probably benefit JRM to put on 10-15 more pounds, but the Vols really like his athleticism and coverage skills at the position. If he can play bigger than his body, he has a real chance to hang on to a starting role.
JRM blocked the punt that was recovered by Devaun Swafford for a touchdown in last year's near-win against Georgia, so he has proven he has big-play potential.
But with some elite linebackers coming in who have a chance to play outside, such as Dillon Bates, Chris Weatherd, Elliott Berry and even Jakob Johnson, Reeves-Maybin has to make his presence felt this spring.
Tennessee needs to upgrade its speed and athleticism all over the football field, and one of the places they must get better quickly is strong safety.
Last year was a forgettable one for sophomore starter LaDarrell McNeil, a former consensus 4-star recruit from Texas who was one of the few bright spots on the Vols' disastrous 2012 defense.
Though his statistics didn't fall off drastically last year, McNeil failed to make many impact plays. He also was notorious for taking terrible angles on ball carriers and generally being in the wrong place on big plays to his side of the field.
With UT getting an injection of some serious athleticism with the signings of Todd Kelly Jr., Cortez McDowell, RaShaan Gaulden and Evan Berry, there will be no shortage of athletes who can play safety beside Brian Randolph.
So, another sub-par season from McNeil won't be tolerated.
The best news for McNeil is none of those candidates to take his job are currently on campus.
With Randolph's balky shoulder leaving his spring shrouded in uncertainty, this is the perfect opportunity not only for McNeil to reassert himself as a player, but also as a leader on the back level.
Coleman Thomas could end up being the steal of the recruiting class.
The versatile offensive lineman was Tennessee's second commitment of the cycle and stayed solid with the Vols despite receiving offers from teams such as Georgia and Florida State.
He is very athletic at 6'6", and a collegiate weight program has the Virginia product at more than 300 pounds—up some 20 pounds since his commitment way back in March of 2013.
Though it isn't common for freshmen to come in and start immediately on the offensive line, the Vols love his ability. He will be given every opportunity to battle redshirt freshmen Brett Kendrick and Austin Sanders for the vacant right tackle spot this spring.
It's a bit of hyperbole to say UT's offensive line success could hinge on the play of a freshman, but if Thomas can live up to expectations, it will go a long way in helping Tennessee transition to a whole new line.
This spring is huge for him and the other offensive linemen as coach Don Mahoney needs to start hammering out a solid rotation.
Much like LaDarrell McNeil, Justin Coleman is in desperate need of a good spring to show that he can still commandeer a starting spot for the Vols.
Coleman struggled throughout much of his junior season in 2013, giving up far too many big plays for the second year in a row. Unfortunately for the Vols, they didn't have many solid options with which to replace him.
With mid-term enrollees D'Andre Payne and Emmanuel Moseley on campus, and others like Michael Williams and Riyahd Jones now healthy, that competition will heat up this spring. With a year under his belt, Malik Foreman could be a factor at the other corner opposite Cameron Sutton, too.
It seems unlikely with all the talent coming in that Coleman will be able to stick at one of the outside corner spots. He has been getting a look at nickel back, however, and that is a place where he really could help Tennessee in 2014.
For a player who has started for much of his three-year career to have to scratch and claw to stay on the field is difficult, but that's exactly the position in which Coleman finds himself to open spring practice.
Brendan Downs is banged up, and A.J. Branisel is still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered last year, so it is a prime opportunity for Tennessee's dynamic duo of tight end signees to come in and make some noise this spring.
Ethan Wolf has impressed folks around the program with his athleticism to go along with his near-6'6" size, and with UT breaking in a new offensive line and needing some blocking help, he may be the best bet to get more reps than classmate Daniel Helm.
Former walk-on Alex Ellis and rising senior Woody Quinn also could factor in to the tight end equation, but everybody is going to be excited to see Wolf and Helm this spring.
Helm is a pass-catching specialist who could benefit from a season in the weight room to be a more complete tight end, but he could help in the passing game immediately in two tight end sets.
Wolf, on the other hand, is the complete package. He was a recruiting coup who Butch Jones stole from the Midwest and kept even when Alabama came calling with a scholarship offer.
He will get on the field first out of the two youngsters, and he will play a key role in Jones' offense for the next four years.
There are few returning players in Knoxville who are as physically imposing as the 6'5", 260-pound Jordan Williams.
Whether it's because of flipping from the 4-3 base defense to 3-4 and then back to 4-3 or playing for various coordinators, the light simply hasn't come on yet for the athletic rising senior.
But back when they were putting out good defenses, the Vols seemingly always had reliable defenders emerge this time of year. Players such as Elix Wilson, Marvin Mitchell, Adam Myers-White and Nevin McKenzie didn't become solid defenders until their final year.
The Gainesville, Fla. native certainly has that same kind of potential. He has shown flashes of rushing the passer and being disruptive, and UT certainly could use his experience at strong-side defensive end.
This spring is the ideal time for Williams to show coaches that he is ready to take the leap from fill-in to dependable weapon on the edge.