One of the most anticipated spring practices in a decade began for the Tennessee Volunteers last Friday, and the first week has generated plenty of buzz.
From the introduction of the 14 newcomers to position battles all over the football field, the storylines are bountiful.
Everybody who cares about the Vols wants to know about the quarterback race, how guys like Jalen Hurd and Josh Malone are looking, whether the new bodies in the trenches are coming along and who is emerging into a superstar.
So many newsworthy things are happening all the time, all over the field, everyday in practice on Rocky Top that it's almost impossible to keep up with all the important developments.
Head coach Butch Jones hopes the excitement and all the newness translates into Big Orange bottoms in the seats for the spring game.
But that's still a month away. Let's take a look at the high points from Week 1 of spring drills.
Quarterbacks Mixing Reps
Many times a highlight-reel play has been mentioned during the past week, redshirt freshman quarterback Riley Ferguson's name has been involved.
One of the players with the most intrigue surrounding him this spring has done nothing to stifle that excitement. But that doesn't mean he's leading the race to be UT's QB1.
Riley Ferguson hoping to win the job this spring. pic.twitter.com/Xrtx09fx9k— Austin Price (@AustinPriceless) March 12, 2014
Tennessee's coaches said Thursday that they're mixing things up right now with all four candidates—Ferguson, Joshua Dobbs, Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman. Nobody knows where he currently stands in the pecking order.
UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required):
They have no idea who's getting the next rep—and we do that purposively. I want to see how they react to adversity, to being thrown into the fire. As is the case with any position, the more you demonstrate an ability to execute the offense, the more reps you're gonna get. And, sure, that's obviously relevant with the quarterbacks. But until they start to separate themselves, we're repping them at a pretty even amount.
Rucker has seen snippets of practice, and he has been impressed with Ferguson. But he said others have flashed their abilities, too.
"If this was a beauty contest, Ferguson would win it, but there's a lot more to playing quarterback than throwing the ball pretty," Rucker said. "But, yes, Ferguson's arm is absolutely star-caliber in terms of how he spins it.
"A lot of people would think of Worley as the most consistent because he has the most experience, but I keep hearing that Dobbs is the most consistent of the bunch but just doesn't have the same dynamics as Ferguson and Worley are showing. This is why they're having a quarterback competition. They don't have the best of all worlds in one guy yet."
For now, they're all getting equal play—on the field and in the media spotlight. Dobbs was even the focus of a great Q&A by CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman this week.
It seems the race is a toss-up between Ferguson, Dobbs and Worley.
All four of Tennessee's quarterbacks did interviews today. Seems kinda rare.— Patrick Brown (@patrickbrownTFP) March 8, 2014
Pearson Looks the Part
Without question, the surprise star of camp so far is junior college slot receiver Von Pearson.
The Feather River (Calif.) Community College product enrolled mid-term and was thrust into the fray quickly thanks to Pig Howard's indefinite leave of absence. As the starter in the slot, all the speedy 6'3" specimen has done is make "WOW!" plays, one after another.
The latest came on Thursday, when he made a one-handed grab of a Ferguson pass in the back of the end zone, a play caught on YouTube and so impressive it was re-tweeted by ESPN and made SportsCenter's top 10 in the heat of basketball conference tournament season.
If he keeps making plays like this and develops in the offense, Pearson won't just start but star in 2014.
Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) about Pearson's character, which makes him even more exciting to watch develop.
In a spring where Marquez North is dazzling and Malone is making plays, Pearson has brought the buzz.
It's unbelievable. I said to him the other day, 'Why are you so happy all the time? Why do you have the glass half-full? I’m just wondering. What goes on in your head?' He goes, 'Coach, I've seen the other side. I've worked at Bojangles' serving fried chicken. I've done that. Now I'm at Tennessee, in the SEC. I don't want to go back.' And that's neat to hear him say that.
Lane Staying Ahead of Hurd (Other Position Battle Updates)
The entire Vol Nation has their excitement level through the roof whenever Hurd's name is mentioned, but senior Marlin Lane has renewed his dedication to hard work, and he has maintained his hold on the first-team running back so far.
Lane told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown he skipped Christmas break to focus on preparing for his final year in orange.
I just thought, 'It's my last year,' and my freshman, sophomore and junior years, it went up and down. I decided if I get a month to myself and get my mind right, I could come in strong this offseason.
Lane isn't the only back impressing. The 5-star Hurd has thrilled everybody with his physicality and speed. That should be an exciting battle for months, and both will play huge roles, if healthy.
JONES: @MrHurd_1 is completely healthy. I have been very encouraged. He's every instinctive. It has been great to see his improvement.— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) March 12, 2014
There are position battles all over the field for the Vols, and there are really too many to mention. Some of the big ones are as follows:
- Former starting cornerback Justin Coleman is firmly entrenched as the starting nickel right now in reps, and freshman D'Andre Payne is getting second-team snaps.
- Malone is running with the second team behind redshirt sophomore Jason Croom.
- Tight ends Alex Ellis (walk-on) and true freshman Daniel Helm are shining at TE. Helm is really athletic and has made some big plays in drills.
- JUCO defensive tackle Owen Williams is starting currently in the middle of UT's DL.
- On the offensive line, mid-term enrollees freshman Coleman Thomas (right tackle) and Dontavius Blair (left tackle) have a hold on the exterior, while Kyler Kerbyson is starting over Dylan Wiesman at right guard.
- Jalen Reeves-Maybin is getting first-team reps at outside linebacker.
Week 1 Big Orange Buzz (News and Notes)
Curt Maggitt is back and healthy, wreaking havoc defensively and shaking off some rust all at the same time. He has missed more than a year recovering from a torn ACL.
Jones told the Associated Press' Steve Megargee (via the Knoxville News Sentinel): "He's our leader. He's the one who has everyone's respect. When Curt Maggitt talks, everybody listens."
While Maggitt is back, UT does have some players who are unable to participate this spring. Starting safety Brian Randolph is out recovering from shoulder surgery, as are defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry, tight ends Brendan Downs and A.J. Branisel and receiver Ryan Jenkins.
Finally, senior linebacker A.J. Johnson got the chance to tell the media this week for the first time why he chose to return to Knoxville for his final season.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information obtained from 247Sports unless otherwise noted.