Tennessee Football: Complete Spring Game Preview

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistApril 11, 2014

Tennessee Football: Complete Spring Game Preview

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    Wade Payne

    It would be difficult to script a better spring finale for the Tennessee Volunteers and head coach Butch Jones.

    Saturday's weather is supposed to be perfect, competition promises to be intense, and the hype surrounding all the new faces and intriguing position battles has all the trappings of a large crowd in Neyland Stadium.

    The Vols made it through spring practice without any catastrophic injuries (so far), and while there are numerous questions that can't be answered until deep into the fall, UT made a lot of headway in finding some help on a team with needs all over the field.

    Jones told ESPN.com's Chris Low that he expects this year's Vols will be faster and more athletic than his first team at Tennessee, and this will be the first opportunity for fans to see that firsthand.

    Let's take a look at all you need to know about the Orange and White Game.

Game Information

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    Wade Payne

    DISH Orange and White Game

    Time: 3 p.m. ET

    Radio/TV: Vol Network stations (No scheduled TV currently)

    Weather: 79 degrees and 10 percent chance of rain, according to Weather.com

    Format: There are various ways the offense and defense can score, and it's far too extensive to note all the different points awarded, so here's a link to UTSports.com's official scoring system. Essentially, as the site says, "though the majority of the scoring will be the same as a football game, Coach Jones will also reward big plays during the game."

    Rosters also can be found at the above link.

    Particulars: Admission is free.

     

    Fan Day will take place from 12:30-1:30 p.m. at Neyland Stadium, according to UTSports.com. Fans should enter at Gate 7. Autographs are limited to one item per person.

    Gates open at 1:30 p.m. Gates 4, 6, 9, 10, 14, 16, 17, 20, 21 and 23 will be available for entry.

    There will be a VFL Flag Football Classic at halftime, featuring former Vols players such as Leonard Little, Peerless Price, Travis Stephens and Al Wilson.

    For more information on parking, traffic, other game-day pertinent information, prohibited items and stadium guidelines, check the link above.

Position Battles to Watch

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    Wade Payne

    Quarterback

    Though he didn't come out and say it, Butch Jones indicated Thursday that senior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson are ahead in Tennessee's four-man quarterback derby, according to a pair of tweets by the football team's official Twitter account combined below:

    We are balancing repetitions. Justin & Riley have taken more reps and they will continue to. Nate & Josh continue to progress. So much growth in a player can occur over summer months. We will make a decision on our starter in training camp.

    Everybody wants to see Ferguson—the only one of the bunch who didn't have live game action in 2013—and Saturday will be their chance. Sophomores Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman are also in the mix, but it appears they've fallen behind.

    All have shown flashes this spring, and Saturday will be a big test in front of thousands.

     

    Running Back

    Freshman midterm enrollee Jalen Hurd has impressed the coaches all spring, as noted by Volquest's Rob Lewis (subscription required), but that doesn't mean he has seized the starting role from Marlin Lane.

    Even though Lane suffered a broken bone in his hand, he has toughed it out and continues to receive reps with the first team. He may be limited on Saturday, but he and Hurd will be duking it out well into the fall.

     

    Tight End

    Tennessee has upgraded its talent pool at tight end significantly with the additions of freshmen Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm.

    Alex Ellis and Woody Quinn also appear to have carved out a place in the battle for playing time. Once Brendan Downs and A.J. Branisel get healthy, the position looks like it could be very deep for the Vols.

    While tight end isn't one of those positions everybody gets excited about, it's vital to Jones' offense to have talent there. So, the position is worth watching.

     

    Defensive Tackle

    While Owen Williams has been constantly getting first-team reps, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown, both of those interior spots are wide open.

    Danny O'Brien hasn't seized control of his starting tackle spot, allowing Jordan Williams to shift inside some, as well as opening the door for athletic freshman Dimarya Mixon.

    When Trevarris Saulsberry returns from his injury in the fall, UT will have some more options. But the Vols are looking for consistency, and if they can't find it, 2014 might be a long year.

Top Storylines

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    247Sports

    Green in Orange

    So much has been made of Tennessee's vaunted recruiting class and the fact that it featured 14 much-needed midterm enrollees for Butch Jones to have as new toys.

    But the bottom line is most of them are going to play—a lot.

    Everybody's eyes will be on running back Jalen Hurd and wide receiver Josh Malone, who were two of the most highly coveted prospects in the nation not long ago.

    But Dimarya Mixon, Emmanuel Moseley, Coleman Thomas, Dontavius Blair, Owen Williams, Von Pearson, Ethan Wolf, Daniel Helm and possibly Jakob Johnson are all expected to play a lot this year. All of them will play Saturday.

     

    Tennessee Turnaround?

    Last year arguably featured the least talent the Vols have had in three decades, and it was painfully obvious upon first view.

    With all the new talent, Tennessee's offense has been downright explosive at times this spring. Is that because of the defensive woes, or does this year's team have the opportunity to put up some points?

    Also, defensively, UT needed to get quicker all over the field. While that transformation won't fully be realized until 13 more prospects who project as defenders arrive, the Vols should be a step quicker already.

     

    Trouble in the Trenches

    The Vols are going to be a work in progress on both lines of scrimmage. 

    While that is not conducive to having a great season in the rugged SEC, it's where Jones' program currently is. The Vols must replace every starter on the offensive and defensive lines.

    There have been some predictably poor practices this spring as the new starters battle, and growing pains likely will continue throughout the season. Saturday will be the perfect time to see if there is hope this year, or if it's going to be a long season because of struggling front lines.

What the Experts Are Saying

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    USA TODAY Sports

    There are plenty of players to watch during Saturday's dressed-up scrimmage, and some reporters have offered up some interesting tidbits on Twitter this week.

    Based on GoVols247's Wes Rucker's conversation with UT wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni, Von Pearson should improve a fair bit in front of a crowd, much the way he has throughout the spring.

    The junior college transfer has had some electrifying individual moments, but the scrimmage settings haven't been Pearson's forte.

    #Vols WRs coach Zach Azzanni on Von Pearson: “Awful” 1st scrimmage, “less awful” 2nd scrimmage and “a little bit less awful” 3rd scrimmage.

    — Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) April 9, 2014

    Rucker also noted that outside linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt has had a nice spring returning from his knee injury. He "continues to look more and more like himself. That's great for him and for his team. Very talented guy."

    Nooga.com's Daniel Lewis reported this week two position changes that will be worth watching Saturday. Dimarya Mixon is getting significant reps at defensive tackle, and fellow freshman Jakob Johnson is playing some defensive end.

    Knoxville News Sentinel reporter Evan Woodbery tweeted out this poster that will be given out at the Orange and White Game.

    The Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown has a nice story on Tennessee's revamped offensive line. Junior Kyler Kerbyson told Brown in regard to last year's line, "We thought we were just as good as those guys."

Important Injuries

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Brian Randolph

    The Vols defense has struggled this spring, but it has been without one of its leaders.

    Starting safety Brian Randolph has missed the entire spring while recovering from a shoulder injury, and while he is expected to be 100 percent by the time the season starts, he will not play in Saturday's spring finale.

    Randolph was second on the team with 75 tackles and had a team-leading four interceptions in 2013.

     

    Trevarris Saulsberry

    The redshirt junior from Gainesville, Fla., has shown glimpses of being a quality defensive tackle, but he has missed the entire spring while recovering from knee and shoulder procedures.

    The Vols defensive line has suffered because of it.

    He won't play on Saturday, but UT needs him to get healthy because he will be in the mix to start in the fall.

     

    Brendan Downs

    Last year's starting tight end is recovering from a knee injury that hobbled him throughout the 2013 season. He needs to come back better than ever now.

    The rising senior faces plenty of competition from freshmen Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm, and he'll have to fight to win back his starting role after he struggled as a junior.

     

    Marlin Lane

    The senior running back is the only player on this list who is slated to play, but he won't be 100 percent.

    Lane broke a bone in his hand this spring, which limited him a little, but he still has been getting a significant amount of workload along with freshman Jalen Hurd.

    This isn't the time to be sitting out because of being hurt, and Lane knows it. According to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required), Lane has been lauded for his consistency by coaches and is practicing to try to keep the talented Hurd behind him on the depth chart.