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Tennessee Football: Don't Be Blinded by Spring Stats, Vols Have Work to Do

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones
Tennessee head coach Butch JonesUSA TODAY Sports
Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterApril 14, 2014

One look at the box score, and you'll probably be blinded by Tennessee's flashy stats from the spring game.

The Vols totaled 762 yards, early-enrollee Josh Malone and sophomore Marquez North each topped the 100-yard mark receiving and early-enrollee running back Jalen Hurd had 66 rushing yards and a score on the ground as the White outscored the Orange 129-100 in a modified scoring system in Saturday's spring game at Neyland Stadium.

Great, right?

Well, not really.

The emergence of Malone and Hurd as legitimate weapons to complement North and senior running back Marlin Lane is nice, but that's not the biggest issue facing second-year head coach Butch Jones this spring.

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones
Tennessee head coach Butch JonesUSA TODAY Sports

Defense isparticularly the fundamentals. 

Tennessee finished 11th in the SEC in total defense last year (418.4 YPG), and struggled with tackling on Saturday.

"The biggest thing I'm most disappointed in that we need to take tremendous strides is our tackling," Jones said in quotes released by Tennessee. "We've spent an inordinate amount of time this spring in terms of tackling. On the positive side of it, we were in good position to make the tackles. Everything is about body position, we just didn't make them so we'll go back."

There is quite a bit of inexperience on Tennessee's defense, particularly up front, where the Vols return no starters on the defensive line. Veteran linebacker A.J. Johnson was limited, but the defense has to take a step forward, and it starts with fundamentals.

Tennessee DE Corey Vereen
Tennessee DE Corey VereenJoe Robbins/Getty Images

Up front, Jones is still looking for the consistency and depth needed along the defensive line to be a contender in the SEC East. Owen Williams had five tackles, including one for a loss, hybrid linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt had three, Jordan Williams had two and Corey Vereen had one. 

"The thing I was kind of disappointed in, in the spring game today, was the drop off from ones to twos," Jones said in his postgame quotes. "We need to generate outs defensively and we didn't generate very many three-and-outs today."

The closer you are to the ball at the line of scrimmage, the better chance you have to play right away. With five defensive linemen coming in this summer as part of the 2014 recruiting class, including 4-star defensive ends Dewayne Hendrix and Derek Barnett and 4-star defensive tackles Charles Mosley and Michael Sawyers, there will be even more chances to build that depth during fall camp.

But what about the quarterbacks?

Josh Dobbs was sensational on Saturday, completing six of nine passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns, and adding 59 rushing yards and a score on the ground. Jones had begun to narrow the quarterback race down to senior Justin Worley—who completed 11 of 13 passes for 151 yards and a score on Saturday, and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson—who threw for 83 yards and a touchdown but was sacked three times.

With a strong performance on spring's biggest stage, Dobbs may have elbowed his way back in. If he does, that will take some first-team snaps away from the eventual winner. But on the plus side, it will push Worley and Ferguson during summer conditioning.

Quarterbacks won't be an issue. They proved enough on Saturday that they are capable of getting the ball into their playmakers, and that's good enough.

But the defense struggled, particularly up front. That was one Tennessee's biggest issues heading into spring practice, and it remains its biggest issue exiting it.

 

* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All spring game statistics are courtesy of the University of Tennessee.


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