Tennessee Football: 6 Volunteers Who Could Surprise People This Spring
The Tennessee Volunteers will be short on superstars again in 2014, which is why it's essential for head coach Butch Jones to identify the diamonds present on a roster that's rough in terms of experience.
Coaches and fans know about what they should be able to expect from proven commodities such as A.J. Johnson, Marquez North, Brian Randolph, Cameron Sutton and Marlin Lane.
But beyond those Vols who carry the burden of high expectations lies a mountain of inexperienced talent waiting to be mined.
The process to find key contributors for this season begins Friday when spring practice kicks off in Knoxville, Tenn.
Despite being in the unenviable position of having to rebuild both entire lines of scrimmage, Tennessee will field more raw talent than it has in a long time, and 14 highly touted newcomers will go through spring drills.
It's time for returners on the roster to take that logical leap to accountability as well.
So, let's take a look at six Vols who could provide surprising springs and find themselves firmly in the mix for expanded roles in 2014.
QB Justin Worley
Let's face it: Justin Worley has been largely written off.
The rising senior quarterback returns to Tennessee after starting the majority of 2013 before an injury suffered in the Alabama game sidelined him for the remainder of the season.
But you'd never know it.
Most of the pre-spring buzz has focused on sophomore Joshua Dobbs and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson. What's convenient to forget, however, is Worley is the only quarterback on the roster who has beaten a ranked opponent (South Carolina).
He also was beginning to play better football around the time he was hurt.
During his last 3.5 games against South Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and the Crimson Tide, Worley had completed 55 percent of his passes for 718 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions.
Those aren't spectacular numbers, but Worley was improving.
If he shakes off the rust this spring, it wouldn't be a stretch to see Worley take a major step forward. If he does, his experience will make him the odds-on favorite to be the first quarterback Butch Jones throws out there in '14.
OLB Curt Maggitt
It's no secret what Butch Jones thinks of rising junior outside linebacker Curt Maggitt.
According to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Evan Woodbery (subscription required), Jones said last week that the Florida native was the "heart and soul" of the Vols.
That's heady stuff for a player who hasn't suited up since November 2012 due to injuries.
When he's well, there's no disputing the impact the 6'3", 244-pound Maggitt can have.
Defensive coordinator John Jancek can move him around to inside or outside 'backer and even have him put a hand on the ground at end for pass-rushing situations.
Maggitt sat the entire 2013 season rather than burn a season when he wasn't fully healthy after rehabbing a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in late November 2012 against Missouri. Prior to that, he had been hobbled most of his sophomore season with turf toe.
Sixteen months removed from his injury, Maggitt should be healed. It'll be a surprise to see just how disruptive he can be, and the Vols defense will be much better with him on the field.
CB Malik Foreman
Early in 2013 when Malik Foreman was getting some major reps at cornerback, it appeared the freshman from Kingsport, Tenn., was primed to be a key contributor.
Then, he hit a wall.
Foreman was mostly a nonfactor on the defensive depth chart through most of the conference schedule despite playing in nine games, registering 10 tackles and intercepting a ball.
Like most first-year players, he simply wasn't ready to play SEC football.
After a season of learning the system and bulking up in the weight room, the 5'10", 181-pound cornerback is in need of a big spring to surge to the top of a wide-open group of players looking to start opposite Cameron Sutton at cornerback.
He looks the part, and with a little polish on his raw skills, Foreman is a player a lot of folks on Rocky Top are excited to watch develop.
Foreman has the talent, speed and now the physicality to seize that other starting spot. It's just a matter of time before the hometown boy realizes his huge upside.
OL Coleman Thomas
Opportunity abounds on the offensive line, and there are few players who have stepped into a more favorable position than true freshman Coleman Thomas.
As one of the 14 early enrollees going through his first spring practice, the Fort Chiswell, Va., native is going to be thrown headfirst into an all-out battle with redshirt freshmen Brett Kendrick and Austin Sanders for that vacant right tackle spot.
The 311-pounder has put on weight since coming to UT, and that positive gain will blend well with the athleticism UT coaches are excited about. Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney told UTSports.com when Thomas enrolled:
Coleman is extremely athletic and played very physical as a senior. He has tremendous potential to play every position across the line. He has great size and strength. We are very excited about his mental makeup and his maturity.
Along with hopeful left tackle and junior college transfer Dontavius Blair, Thomas' rapid development is a key to Tennessee's 2014 success.
If he can be a quick study and live up to the hype surrounding him this spring, UT's offensive line worries may be all for naught.
DT Danny O'Brien
One of former Vols head coach Derek Dooley's most prized commitments came when Michigan defensive tackle Danny O'Brien spurned the home-state Wolverines and Spartans to head south to Rocky Top in 2012.
After two seasons of working out and waiting his turn, the 6'2", 281-pound rising redshirt sophomore nose tackle appears poised to take over for the departed Daniel McCullers and Dan Hood on the defensive line.
O'Brien showed impressive flashes as a freshman in 2013, finishing with 12 tackles (including three for a loss) and a sack. His biggest game came in the Vols' triumphant win over No. 11 South Carolina when he tallied three tackles and his lone sack.
With Trevarris Saulsberry recovering from surgery this spring, O'Brien is the elder statesman in the middle of that young line.
As one of the most relentless workers on the team, it is time for that to pay off on the field.
Tennessee has a ton of talent coming in on the defensive line this summer, but few of those signees were midterm players. O'Brien has the opportunity to create a gulf between himself and the newcomers and carve his niche as a dependable starter for a UT team desperately needing them.
WR Jason Croom
Marquez North captured the headlines in 2013, and with potential stars like Josh Malone and Von Pearson signing with Tennessee, the Vols wide receiving corps looks stacked for the future.
But a bit of a forgotten man is 6'5", 234-pound man-child Jason Croom.
The light never fully came on for Croom as a redshirt freshman in 2013, but when it flickered, everybody could see the Norcross, Ga., native's massive potential.
Things finally looked like they were coming together in the season finale against Kentucky when he had two quick catches for 74 yards, including a touchdown grab on a juggling, 43-yard grab. However, on that play, Croom broke his collarbone, ending his season.
He finished with 18 catches for 269 yards and a couple of scores for the year.
Despite his frustrating inconsistency running routes and catching passes, Croom has the size and ability to be a great receiver, especially in the red zone.
Fully cleared this spring, Croom has a major opportunity to battle Malone, Pearson and others for playing time. He will prove he belongs firmly in the rotation in what will become a deep talent pool of pass-catchers.