Tennessee Football: Top Performers from the Volunteers' Spring Game
While it's impossible to ignore the glaring questions facing the Tennessee Volunteers, it wasn't difficult for head coach Butch Jones to put a spring-ending positive spin on how far the team has come.
The Vols are a young, inexperienced work in progress, but if they get some serious help on defense, there are enough offensive weapons about which to get excited.
That was evident during Saturday's Orange and White Game, and Jones even cracked a smile a few times in discussing a month of practice where tons got accomplished, his team grew up and no major injuries were incurred.
"I left here a year ago at this time obviously very concerned about our throw game and big splash plays and that kind of showed itself last season, and that's in the past," Jones said. "I'm very encouraged by what I see, but we have a long way to go."
Jones, of course, went on to note the team's deficiencies—such as tackling, defensive depth and turnovers—but those are concerns for another day.
The spring finale was about the playmakers who emerged, and there were plenty. Let's examine Saturday's stars.
All quotes were obtained firsthand.
7. Curt Maggitt
During halftime of the spring scrimmage, Vols legend Al Wilson presented redshirt junior defensive end/outside linebacker Curt Maggitt with the leadership award that bears Wilson's name.
After such a difficult year-and-a-half recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the award proved Maggitt has reemerged this spring.
Even though it was a forgettable day for the defense, the West Palm Beach, Fla., product still shone, backing up his words with stats.
He finished with three tackles and a sack playing with his hand down at end in nickel situations and at outside linebacker during base packages, and he harassed the quarterbacks the way everybody remembers he can.
Maggitt was able to show the 68,000-plus fans at Neyland Stadium what had been on display to coaches all spring.
Though he failed to get his hands on the signal-callers more than once, he proved he certainly has that capability. Maggitt looked like the athletic, nimble Maggitt of old, which is huge news for a defense desperately needing playmakers.
6. Jalen Hurd
Jalen Hurd took a short pass, got in the open field and showed a burst that generated a buzz throughout Neyland Stadium on his way to a 27-yard gain.
The sound came from it being so long since the patrons had seen an athlete able to do those things from the running back position.
Maybe it was relief as much as excitement.
After the one play where he was unleashed into the open field, the 6'3" Hurd balled up into a low-pad, short-yardage bull the rest of the day on his way to 66 rushing yards on 11 carries that included a touchdown surge.
There was nothing spectacular about the Hendersonville freshman's debut in front of the fans who've already dubbed him a star. But his performance was still special.
Hurd can do everything on the field, and that was on display Saturday. The Vols will be pleased if they can get 93 total yards per game from him, which was his total in the scrimmage. But, regardless, he will be a weapon opponents have to scheme against every game.
5. Jalen Reeves-Maybin
Perhaps the most surprising defensive player Saturday was sophomore outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
He was around the football all day, flying around the field and finishing second on the team with seven tackles, including 0.5 tackles for a loss. For a converted safety who will have to battle to keep his job once the newcomers arrive, it was a quality performance.
JRM will almost certainly have to put on a few pounds in the offseason, but he staked his claim for that starting spot, and he was without question the most impressive defender for the day.
Performances like that can only help when freshman Dillon Bates and junior college transfer Chris Weatherd arrive this summer.
"He has continued to improve each and every day," head coach Butch Jones said of Reeves-Maybin. "We're going to need him. Him and A.J. (Johnson) are really forming a chemistry there with communication. He continues to get better and better.
"This offseason and summer is going to be critical for him. He is going to have to put on 10 pounds. He is going to have to show durability playing inside the box, but he's very competitive. He adds another part of athleticism and speed to our defense."
4. Joshua Dobbs
Despite starting the final portion of his freshman year at quarterback, Joshua Dobbs had become a bit of an afterthought in this spring's four-man derby.
Justin Worley and Riley Ferguson outplayed Dobbs on their way to getting the bulk of first-team reps.
Then on Saturday, Dobbs reannounced his return to the picture to start in a huge way. The super-smart sophomore engineered four touchdown drives, accounting for all of the scores.
He completed six passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns and took a low, bounced snap off the ground and rumbled 59 yards for another touchdown.
"Josh has had a productive spring, but I thought he really stepped it up today," coach Butch Jones said.
Though all that action came against mostly reserves, it was impossible to ignore Dobbs' noticeable muscle gain and sheer arm strength on deep balls.
Dobbs noted he has indeed gotten stronger, and when asked if he thought the strength gave him more confidence on deep patterns, he noted, "I would say that but I feel like I have always been able to make those throws. So continue to grow and it comes with timing and working with the receivers."
He was on the same page as his targets Saturday, especially Josh Malone.
3. Justin Worley
Joshua Dobbs may have stolen the headlines by filling the stat sheet, but rising senior Justin Worley took the biggest step forward.
Playing against the first-team defense every time he took the field, Worley led three scoring drives, including two that finished in the end zone.
From a sheer timing and tempo standpoint, Worley looked like a completely different quarterback leading a completely different offense than a year ago.
The Rock Hill, S.C. signal-caller appeared even to have grown from the quarterback who should have led the Vols to a win over Georgia and followed it up by completing the task against South Carolina before a season-ending injury.
He was poised, confident and the entire offense looked comfortable with him at the helm. Considering the difference of competition he faced compared to Dobbs, he was the most impressive.
Worley didn't make any of the oh-my-goodness plays Dobbs did or Riley Ferguson is capable of, but he was in full command and precise with his passes, finishing 11-of-13 for 151 yards and a touchdown. He also showed a bit of athleticism, keeping two read-options for 55 rushing yards.
Head coach Butch Jones noted multiple times during his postgame press conference he was "encouraged" by the way his quarterbacks played all spring, and Worley's poise was a key reason why.
Though he won't put up the sexy numbers, it's hard not to like the way Worley responded in front of a big crowd at Neyland.
2. Marquez North
There is no ceiling on Marquez North's potential.
At 6'4" and 221 pounds, it's difficult to witness him in full pads up close and keep your mouth closed. He's a jaw-dropping athlete.
Then, you see him streak down the field and torch former freshman All-American Cameron Sutton for a 50-yard touchdown in Saturday's spring game and realize he's just a sophomore.
With newcomers Josh Malone and Von Pearson taking some of the defensive attention off North, he should have a breakout season.
In his first spring game on the Hill, North wound up with five catches for 106 yards and a score. The buzz was rightfully centered on Malone after his dazzling debut, but North's was equally impressive considering who he lined up on all day.
The bottom line for the Vols is they've got too many weapons at their disposal to have another poor offensive year. Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian just need to settle on a quarterback, point at North and say, "Throw it to that guy as much as you can."
As big, strong and sure-handed as North is, he'll be the closest thing to a safety blanket whoever wins the job can have.
1. Josh Malone
There are multiple reasons why every major college team in the nation coveted Josh Malone.
The freshman mid-term enrollee showed the Neyland Stadium faithful 181 small ones and three bigger ones in a debut that will do nothing but dump a load of gasoline on his already brightly rising star.
That's 181 yards (on six catches) and three touchdowns.
On one play, he made an inside move on D'Andre Payne, got a couple steps on him, caught the pass and ran away from his fellow classmate.
Another time, Malone made a cut in traffic that corkscrewed a defender and picked up an extra 10 yards.
Finally, he took a 79-yard pass from Joshua Dobbs in full stride and never looked back.
Basically, he set the bar really high for himself.
"All of them are just freaky talented," Marquez North said of his receiving compadres. "I’m just excited to see where it goes.”
"I'm very impressed with Malone. He's a humble guy with a good work ethic. He's gonna take off."
With Saturday's performance, he already has.