Position-by-Position Preview of Tennessee's 2014 Roster
The Tennessee Volunteers are going to be full of new faces in 2014, and having a roster handy those first few games may not be a bad idea.
All of the Vols' signees—besides Chris Weatherd—are on campus, officially on the roster and ready to participate in summer workouts, which means the team is coming more into focus.
The good news is head coach Butch Jones is getting the same level of injected defensive talent now that he did offensively prior to spring practice.
The bad news is there isn't a lot of time to get them ready to play Southeastern Conference football.
"The challenging part is the individuals on offense, most of our recruiting class was here this spring," Jones told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "They now have a spring under their belt from a maturation standpoint. (Defensively) now you’re relying on 17- or 18-year-old freshmen coming in, and all they have is June, July and August to get ready to play a full season.
"But the realities of where we're at is there are going to be a lot of freshmen that have to play defensively. A lot of it's going to be in the interior front and at the linebacker position and even in the secondary. It's going to be critical we extract every ounce of value from each day."
So, where do all the new players fit? A lot of that still needs to be sorted out, but now that everybody has arrived (besides Weatherd, who still has a shot to get into UT, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Evan Woodbery), the puzzle pieces are beginning to fall into place.
So, let's take a look at an early position-by-position breakdown of UT's 2014 roster.
Riley Ferguson threw a major, unexpected curveball toward Jones' quarterback derby last week when he decided to transfer.
Any hope of the redshirt freshman's return was seemingly quelled by Jones when he told the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Evan Woodbery that "we wish (Ferguson) well," but chose instead to talk about the players currently on his team.
Ferguson earned first-team reps along with senior Justin Worley this spring. Though sophomore Joshua Dobbs outperformed him in the Orange and White spring game, Ferguson's future in orange seemed bright.
Now, he is no longer part of the picture, and UT has just three scholarship quarterbacks entering summer workouts.
At this point, it's difficult seeing anybody overtake Worley at the helm. He looked much sharper this spring than at any time in 2013, improving his timing, accuracy and leadership.
The senior from Rock Hill, South Carolina, is a traditional dropback passer with little ability to run, and while Dobbs would provide more dual-threat capabilities, he has to become more consistent to crack the starting spot.
The Vols need some massive improvement from all their signal-callers this season. Both Worley and Dobbs have been putting in extra work, attending George Whitfield's quarterback camp in San Diego, according to 247Sports' Brad Pope (subscription required).
With numerous weapons at their disposal, UT's quarterback play should improve. It has to if the Vols are going to make a bowl game.
Tennessee must replace 1,000-plus yard rusher Rajion Neal, who signed a NFL free-agent contract, but that doesn't seem like an insurmountable task.
That's because the Vols' stable of runners is as talented as it has been in years.
Senior Marlin Lane's improved work ethic and propensity to play through an injury were refreshing this spring to a team needing multiple leaders to emerge.
He has the game reps and ability to be a steady, stable force for UT. Lane should improve on his 534 rushing yards and four touchdowns from a season ago.
The Vols also added a game-breaker to its arsenal in former 5-star running back Jalen Hurd, a 6'3", 227-pound speedster who certainly looked the part in his first spring practice.
It would be a surprise if Lane and Hurd didn't split the majority of handoffs when the season starts.
Senior change-of-pace runner Devrin Young can split out and catch passes and be a third-down option, but he'll be challenged for that spot immediately by incoming freshman Derrell Scott, a former 4-star prospect who chose UT over Florida and South Carolina, among others.
Justus Pickett and incoming freshman wrecking ball Treyvon Paulk could factor into the equation as well, but Pickett must improve to jump the incumbents, and Paulk is still recovering from a high school knee injury.
Tennessee's wide receiving corps is so saturated with talent, it's almost unfair.
Now, the Vols just have to find somebody to get them the football.
If quarterbacks Justin Worley or Joshua Dobbs emerge to have a quality season, it's going to be a big offensive year in Knoxville, mainly because of the pass-catching targets.
The jewel of UT's embarrassment of riches is 6'4", 221-pound sophomore Marquez North, an emerging star who hauled in 38 catches for 496 yards in 2013. North is best remembered for his one-handed Hail Mary grab against South Carolina that set the upset stage, but he was a consistent weapon when healthy.
Throw in newcomers Josh Malone and Von Pearson, who had exceptional introductions to college football this spring, and the Vols look set.
That's not to mention potential breakouts, such as 6'5" sophomore Jason Croom, who appeared to have a mental light flicker late last season, sophomore Josh Smith or senior stalwart Jacob Carter.
UT's all-important slot position will see Pearson battle against Johnathon Johnson, Ryan Jenkins, incoming freshman Vic Wharton and possibly even last year's starter, Alton "Pig" Howard, who could provide a huge boost if he takes care of business and returns.
Howard led all UT receivers in receptions in '13, but he did not participate in spring drills while not being a part of the team. Jones told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press' Patrick Brown that Howard will be a part of the team's summer workouts, and he could return.
If that's the case, it just adds to a depth chart already brimming with potential stars.
Tight end is going to be an extremely young position for the Vols in 2014, but it should be very much improved from a season ago.
The freshman duo of Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm arrived midterm and immediately injected a level of player into that position that UT didn't have on the roster.
This spring wasn't a good time for rising senior Brendan Downs or sophomore A.J. Branisel to be injured, but their recoveries opened opportunities for Wolf and Helm, who've taken advantage.
Now, it's going to be hard for Butch Jones to keep them off the field.
Wolf is 6'5", 243 pounds and is more of a traditional, in-line tight end who can use his size and athleticism to catch balls over the middle or stay in and help out a youthful offensive line in blocking situations. Helm (6'4", 232 lbs) is the athletic pass-catcher who has improved his physicality in workouts since arriving on campus.
Both will have key roles this season.
As for Downs, if he recovers from his knee injury, he'll compete for playing time as well as walk-on Alex Ellis, who has been close to helping UT in each of the past two seasons prior to injury issues of his own. Senior Woody Quinn could potentially carve out a role in goal-line situations.
There's no way Tennessee can adequately replace all five offensive linemen—two of which were selected in the NFL draft.
But that's the dire situation the Vols are facing in 2014.
Predictably, there were growing pains this spring but also flashes of ability such as junior guard Kyler Kerbyson winning the Harvey Robinson Award for the team's most improved player and true freshman Coleman Thomas never relinquishing his starting right tackle spot from day one.
Right now, the Vols are going with fifth-year former walk-on Jacob Gilliam at left tackle, Marcus Jackson at left guard, Mack Crowder at center, Kerbyson at right guard and Thomas at right tackle.
Junior college tackle Dontavius Blair opened spring as a starter at left tackle until Gilliam beat him out and earned a scholarship. Blair has a ton of ability and the physical stature, but approaching the level of consistency to play in UT's hurry-up offense has been difficult for him.
If that all-important left tackle position continues to be an issue, it's not out of the realm of possibility that UT could shift Kerbyson to tackle and insert guard Dylan Wiesman at right guard.
Wiesman is a rising star who is going to play a lot, anyway, but Kerybson isn't a true tackle. OL coach Don Mahoney has all summer to figure out what needs to happen, but there are no clear current answers.
The Vols have several issues that have to be sorted out along the front, or it doesn't matter how many potential playmakers they've got at the skill positions.
As worrisome as the offensive trench is going to be for Tennessee, the biggest concern lies three inches past the nose of the football.
That's where a series of question marks need to transform from what former coach Derek Dooley would have called a "sack of potatoes" into a quality defensive line rotation.
Hybrid junior Curt Maggitt played most of his spring with his hand down, and he will provide a quality pass-rusher off the edge for the Vols at strong-side end. Rising sophomore Corey Vereen needs to build off a freshman year full of flashes to be a consistent force on the weak side.
Between Jordan Williams (a versatile senior who can play inside or out), Jaylen Miller, Kendal Vickers, LaTroy Lewis and incoming freshmen Dewayne Hendrix and Joe Henderson, the Vols have to establish a rotation of ends.
The most intriguing of that group is Hendrix, a 6'3", 252-pound former 4-star prospect who was coveted by the nation's top teams. He is expected to come in and help immediately.
Defensive tackle is an even bigger question. By the end of spring, UT was starting two newcomers in junior-college transfer Owen Williams and freshman Dimarya Mixon.
The return of 6'4", 297-pound junior Trevarris Saulsberry from injury should be a major boost to the unit, however. Big things are expected from Saulsberry, who was on his way to a big 2013 season before he was sidelined.
Danny O'Brien needs to take a major leap to provide some quality depth, and freshmen such as Derek Barnett and Michael Sawyers could find themselves immediately forced onto the depth chart. Charles Mosley and Jashon Robertson are two-way linemen who also will start on defense and attempt to work into the rotation.
There are a lot of able bodies on UT's roster, but there's very little experience at a position where that is normally necessary to be good in the conference.
A.J. Johnson returned to Tennessee for his senior season, and in doing so, he gave Butch Jones a hallmark around which to build his defense.
The 6'2", 245-pound senior can be penciled in at middle linebacker every game and can normally be depended on for double-digit tackles (registering 106 last season).
This year, he's going to finally have a little more help.
Though the Vols' linebacking corps is extremely young, it's going to be full of players who can cover plenty of ground and play sideline-to-sideline, unlike 2013's trio of Johnson, Dontavis Sapp and Brent Brewer.
In traditional sets, Maggitt will play one outside linebacker spot; Jaylen Reeves-Maybin held down the other outside 'backer spot this spring.
"JRM" is about to face some steep competition from one of the most decorated high school outside linebackers UT has recruited recently in former 4-star legacy Dillon Bates, son of Vols legend Bill Bates. His combination of tackling ability and coverage skills are going to make it difficult to keep him off the field.
Kenny Bynum's impressive spring game has left him a viable candidate to back up Johnson, but Gavin Bryant's arrival on campus is going to make that a fun battle as well.
Jakob Johnson is a hybrid linebacker/end who impressed everybody with his initial spring on Rocky Top, and he has already earned "alpha male" status from Jones, according to WVLT Sports Overtime. And surprising freshman walk-on Colton Jumper will earn some snaps, too, at least on special teams.
If Weatherd makes it to campus, he'll probably mix things up for a starting role, but missing weight-room reps isn't going to help his cause.
Another place where incoming freshmen are going to have every opportunity to play (and even start) for the Vols is at cornerback.
While sophomore Cameron Sutton has locked down a spot with his breakout freshman campaign, true freshman midterm enrollee Emmanuel Moseley won the other boundary corner almost immediately this spring.
He will face plenty of stiff competition from Evan Berry—a potential star with track speed who is the younger brother of UT legend and Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro Eric Berry. Malik Foreman, Riyahd Jones and Michael Williams also will compete for reps on the outside.
The Vols need a youngster to replicate the kind of freshman season that Sutton had in 2013 when he finished with 39 tackles, two interceptions and a sack. At times he looked like he had the ability to grow into a shutdown corner.
At nickelback, it appears senior Justin Coleman has finally found a home. After getting consistently torched on the outside throughout his career, Coleman moved in and had a promising spring. He'll battle to keep that spot with freshman D'Andre Payne.
Foreman and Devaun Swafford also could factor into the equation at nickel.
Rashaan Gaulden is a wild card. He's a versatile freshman who had an eye-popping 206 tackles for Independence High School as a senior. He could play either safety or corner, and if he is athletic enough for corner, he may be a candidate to compete for the nickel spot.
Between the three former 4-star prospects, UT believes it can have a couple ready to play right away.
They'll need to in order to provide LaDarrell McNeil some competition. McNeil has struggled throughout his first two seasons in Knoxville with a lack of top-end speed and poor angles. With junior leader Brian Randolph out this spring recovering from surgery, McNeil had the opportunity to reassert himself prior to the arrival of the freshmen.
He didn't, and now the battle for the safety spot opposite Randolph is wide-open.
As for Randolph, the defense simply wasn't the same without one of its biggest playmakers this spring. A season ago, Randolph was second on the team with 75 tackles and led the Vols with four interceptions.
Though he needs to take a big leap this season, he's one of the best players on UT's roster. Getting Randolph back will be just as big to the back end of Tennessee's defense as getting Trevarris Saulsberry back will be for the line.
Then, it's just a matter of UT finding an athlete who can fly around and be aggressive alongside him.
Replacing Ray Guy Award semifinalist Michael Palardy is one of the most underrated undertakings for Tennessee this season, simply because of the magnitude of his success at so many positions last year.
Palardy averaged 44.5 yards per punt over 63 kicks. He also made 14 of 17 field goals and hit all but one of his extra points while booting 19 kickoffs for touchbacks.
He was UT's biggest offensive weapon.
Now, the Vols will have to use multiple players to attempt to replicate his production.
Incoming freshman Aaron Medley was one of the nation's top kickers, and he will battle for place-kicking duties with George Bullock and Derrick Brodus. Bullock had an inconsistent spring, but he showed marked improvement the last couple of weeks into the spring game.
At punter, senior Matt Darr is the best bet to get the nod after losing his job to Palardy last season. Darr has struggled throughout his career, but he has a big leg, and the Vols need for him to have the same type of senior turnaround that Palardy experienced a season ago.
With all the question marks throughout their personnel, the Vols can't worry about field position and squandering kicking points in 2014.
Brad Shepard is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Brad on Twitter here:
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!