Tennessee Football: 10 Players to Watch in Volunteers' Spring Game
One of the most hotly anticipated Orange & White Games in recent memory will take place Saturday in Neyland Stadium, and there won't be any shortage of storylines for the Tennessee Volunteers.
While it is just a glorified scrimmage, head coach Butch Jones' second spring game at the helm of the Vols will feature plenty of excitement.
From a four-man quarterback race to 14 early enrollees to completely rebuilt offensive and defensive lines, the game will be a Big Orange sensory overload.
Jones held open competitions virtually all over the field, and this will be the biggest stage yet for them to showcase their talents.
Seventeen more fresh faces will get to Knoxville this summer to up the ante even more, but those guys will find themselves behind the youngsters who have arrived early. Many of those newcomers are firmly in the two-deep depth chart, and a few are penciled in as starters.
From some of those first-year Vols to other old faces who've stepped up and seized key roles, this spring has been huge for the program. Now, fans will get the opportunity to self-evaluate those guys and get their first peek at the 2014 Vols.
Let's take a look at 10 players to examine closely on Saturday.
10. Ethan Wolf
Ethan Wolf has burst onto the scene along with classmate Daniel Helm in their first spring on the Hill.
Now, the 6'5", 243-pound freshman tight end from Minster, Ohio, will try to continue his productive first few months in Knoxville with a breakout Orange & White Game.
Wolf has teamed with Helm to form a talented duo that has elevated the play of a position that gave the Vols fits in 2013 when neither Brendan Downs nor A.J. Branisel were able to provide much of an impact. With both of those guys out for the spring, Wolf and Helm took advantage.
"They're every bit as good as we thought they were in the recruiting process," head coach Butch Jones told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown.
Wolf is the bigger of the two, and his physicality makes him able to help more in blocking situations. That doesn't mean he's unable to catch passes, though. His athleticism, size and route-running ability allow him to be a complete force.
Jones' offense is simply better when a tight end is able to be utilized. With Wolf's emergence, the offense will thrive with another young weapon, and he appears to be in a good spot to earn the starting tight end nod.
9. Curt Maggitt
There may not be a more important cog in Tennessee's rebuilding defense than redshirt junior outside linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt.
After missing last season, recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Maggitt has returned at full speed this spring. He is such a disruptive force that defensive coordinator John Jancek is moving him around the field to get him in the best pass-rushing situations.
Maggitt will play some on the line, and he also could drop back and play his normal outside linebacker spot, too.
Teaming with sophomore Corey Vereen, Maggitt's return is expected to improve a dreadful pass rush that was dead-last in the SEC in sacks in 2013, according to ESPN's Edward Aschoff.
At 6'3", 244 pounds, Maggitt is a speedy, athletic defender who seems ticketed for the NFL if he hasn't lost a step post-injury. He has done nothing but impress this spring, so it'll be interesting to see how he performs in front of thousands at Neyland.
8. Emmanuel Moseley
Is Emmanuel Moseley really a threat to be Tennessee's starting No. 2 cornerback opposite Cameron Sutton as a true freshman?
Making a consistent showing against the Vols' talented receivers on Saturday will go a long way in proving to the coaches that he doesn't get that deer-in-the-headlights look once the lights come on.
Moseley is a super fast, talented mid-term enrollee from Greensboro, N.C., but he has an extremely wiry frame and has given up some big plays this spring going against the likes of Marquez North.
He also obviously has made his share of plays or he wouldn't be currently getting the starting nod over sophomore Malik Foreman.
UT head coach Butch Jones indicated to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) this past week that Moseley had the potential to be a key playmaker.
Emmanuel Moseley is the one individual at corner that continually impresses. He's extremely competitive, fights for the ball in the air. He's like a sponge—takes everything that (defensive backs) coach Willie Martinez tells him, tries to apply it to his game.
A big showing Saturday, and Moseley will enjoy a sizable lead heading into the offseason.
7. Jalen Reeves-Maybin
Stud recruits, like junior college transfer Chris Weatherd and star high school legacy Dillon Bates, are expected to be on campus to compete this summer.
But all spring, Jalen Reeves-Maybin held a vice grip on the vacant outside linebacker position for Tennessee.
The former safety and special teams dynamo brings SEC speed and athleticism to the position, which are two things Tennessee desperately needed and lacked when Dontavis Sapp and Brent Brewer held down the spots last year.
While he is currently playing around 220 pounds, "JRM" told Volquest's Rob Lewis (subscription required) this weekend that he'd like to enter the season at around 230 pounds.
Playing at that weight would allow him to keep his athleticism and look more the part of an SEC linebacker.
Reeves-Maybin could blossom into a nice player for the Vols, but the Clarksville native will have his work cut out for him once some competition arrives. It will be interesting to watch him fly around the field and see if he has the physicality to be a force against the run for the Vols.
6. Josh Malone
Josh Malone hasn't stolen the same headlines as classmate and running back Jalen Hurd or fellow pass-catching newcomer Von Pearson this spring.
But that doesn't mean he has failed to impress.
Malone has every single attribute needed to be an elite SEC wide receiver, and the fact that he was able to get some of his growing pains out of the way early in spring practice will prove invaluable, as he is firmly in the 2014 rotation.
Quarterback Justin Worley told the Associated Press' Steve Megargee (via The Tennessean) of Malone and Pearson that "they've started making some big plays for us. It's good to have them here now instead of (arriving) in the summer."
It's just a matter of time before Malone proves why he was such a coveted recruit.
Since he was one of the highest-rated prospects the Vols have had in a while, everybody will want to see UT's quarterbacks get him the football on Saturday. If Malone makes a big play, Neyland Stadium may sound like it does on a real game day.
5. Justin Worley
Justin Worley would be the boring choice to start at quarterback for Tennessee in 2014.
But, sometimes, boring is better.
The rising senior was beginning to (finally) get into a bit of a rhythm before an injury against Alabama sidelined him for the remainder of the season. His grasp on the offense was improving, and he was beginning to develop a better rapport with his receivers.
The injury robbed UT fans of watching him continue to develop. Now, Worley is locked in a dead-heat with freshmen Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs to start the season opener for the Vols.
Worley reportedly has shown flashes of brilliance in scrimmages this spring, but he also has turned the ball over at crucial times like the freshmen.
As the wily veteran, Worley will be in the quarterback battle until the end. Saturday is just another opportunity for him to prove that he's the guy who should lead UT onto the field against Utah State.
4. Coleman Thomas
Way back in March 2013 when Coleman Thomas became Tennessee's second known commitment for this year's class, few expected he'd make an immediate impact.
Yet, pretty much from day one, the Fort Chiswell, Va., freshman mid-term enrollee has been the Vols' starting right tackle.
It's not normally a good thing to have a first-year player starting on the offensive line, but with Tennessee replacing its entire front from last year, Thomas was given a golden opportunity.
He has made the most of it.
The bottom line is the Vols absolutely must have a stellar season from Thomas in order to be successful, especially considering Dontavius Blair has his hands full with a fifth-year walk-on in Jacob Gilliam at left tackle.
Thomas has the athleticism to develop into a strong pass blocker, and he still has the nastiness to be effective in the run game. His importance and development is vastly underrated on this team.
He'll be one of the most important players to watch Saturday.
3. Von Pearson
The talk of spring camp has been junior college transfer receiver Von Pearson, who UT wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni found at Feather River (Calif.) Community College before he had any serious college attention.
Blessed with great height, speed, athleticism and ball skills, Pearson appears to be the complete package. With Pig Howard not currently on the team, Pearson easily slid into the starting slot position, and locked down that spot quickly.
He's been making plays, like this one-handed grab, ever since.
The comparisons to Minnesota Vikings All-Pro and former UT JUCO one-and-done transfer Cordarrelle Patterson will be unavoidable, but it's unfair to expect Pearson to be that kind of all-world talent.
Even so, Pearson will start and make some serious plays for the Vols in 2014. Saturday will be a bit of a coming-out party, and all eyes will be on him.
Hopefully, Tennessee fans will get to see a glimpse of what they can expect from the pass-catcher this season.
2. Riley Ferguson
Tennessee coach Butch Jones is enamored with Riley Ferguson's playmaking ability. It's harnessing all of that and avoiding the drive-ending mistakes that are keeping him from taking over the lead in Tennessee's quarterback derby.
Jones told Volquest (subscription required):
Yeah, one of Riley's intangibles or one of Riley's strengths is the ability to create plays when there's nothing there. Now the thing he has to learn is to avoid the catastrophic plays, and that was a great teach point like we just spoke about earlier. He does, one of his strengths is the ability to create plays when there's nothing there.
Ferguson is super talented, and he has a bright future in Knoxville. Whether that potential is realized in 2014 depends in part to whether or not he can become a player UT can depend to not turn the ball over.
The Vols will have much more talent than they did in 2013, but their margin for error in the rugged SEC is still going to be incredibly small.
The message boards have loved Ferguson for nearly a year now, and they've created this image that will be difficult for him to live up to. It's a safe bet he'll be one of the most closely scrutinized players on the field Saturday.
1. Jalen Hurd
Fair or not, Jalen Hurd is going to be discussed as the program's savior.
It's been years since a high school player has brought as much clout with him to Knoxville as the massive running back from Beech High School in Hendersonville, Tenn.
Hurd's breakout spring has done nothing to temper those massive expectations, either.
There's little doubt that at 6'3", 221 pounds, Hurd has the physical attributes to be a star. But running backs coach Robert Gillespie told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) that Hurd is picking up the little things, like pass protection, that will make him see the field quicker.
If he continues to work hard, his ceiling is limitless.
A hand injury to expected starter Marlin Lane has made Hurd's path to playing time even clearer, and he should get the bulk of the carries during the spring game.
Hurd is such a unique combination of speed and power who carries with him the air of superstardom that he will be revered and scrutinized from day one in Knoxville. On Saturday, thousands of UT fans will get their first first-hand glimpse of the future at running back.