Tennessee Football: Recapping the Biggest 2014 Offseason News So Far
Every coach around the country hopes for a quiet, ho-hum offseason devoid of any bombshell news. Tennessee football coach Butch Jones hasn't gotten that, but there haven't been any disasters, either.
Since the end of last year's 5-7 bowl-less season, the Volunteers have welcomed all but one of their 32 February signees. They've said "goodbye" to an important player for the future and "hello" to a recommitted receiver.
UT also celebrated the first-round selection of former offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James in the NFL draft and watched many of its former offensive linemen struggle through a grueling two days to follow.
The steady flow of news has been about like any other offseason in other words.
As Jones embarks on year two of his rebuild, the core of his program finally is in place, barring any unforeseen issues between now and kickoff of the Utah State game on Aug. 31.
But before the team continues its summer workouts and prepares to try to get to a bowl game for the first time in three years, let's take a look back at what has made headlines on Rocky Top since December.
Riley Ferguson's Transfer
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones opened up his quarterback competition as a four-man free-for-all throughout spring. The two names that emerged getting first-team reps were senior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson.
Now, all of a sudden, Ferguson is gone.
In one of the most bizarre twists of UT's past few seasons of struggles, the talented player many believed to be the future of the position in Knoxville simply up and quit (subscription required).
According to GoVols247's Wes Rucker, Ferguson "wanted to be closer to his North Carolina home" near Charlotte. He could play immediately with his brother if he transferred to UNC Charlotte.
Last season, Ferguson redshirted after suffering a leg injury prior to the Alabama game. Though he was one of the most inconsistent of UT's quarterback options this spring, he also was the most dynamic.
Now, his potential will have to be realized elsewhere.
Ferguson's departure was shocking and, frankly, not very smart.
He was going to battle Worley to start right away. At worst, it appeared he had the upper hand on Joshua Dobbs and whatever quarterback UT brought in during the 2015 recruiting cycle to be the starter for years down the road.
Instead, Ferguson squandered an opportunity to start in the SEC.
Huge Recruiting Class Looks the Part
Butch Jones' 2013 recruiting class turned heads nationally, finishing ranked seventh in the nation by 247Sports and boasting a slew of difference-makers expected to contribute immediately.
The bulk of the offensive players arrived in time for spring drills, and many of them impressed.
Running back Jalen Hurd; receiver Josh Malone; tight ends Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf; offensive tackle Coleman Thomas; and defenders such as Dimarya Mixon, Emmanuel Moseley and Jakob Johnson can help right away.
The second wave of players (with a defensive flavor) arrived a couple of weeks ago. Former elite recruits such as Dillon Bates, the Berry twins, Michael Sawyers, Dewayne Hendrix, Derek Barnett, Rashaan Gaulden, Cortez McDowell and Todd Kelly Jr. are on campus and ready to contribute.
The only player from UT's massive class who isn't yet on campus is outside linebacker Chris Weatherd (who is also not yet on UTSports.com's official roster).
The newcomers will infuse talent into a roster depleted of it. As Butch Jones told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview: "Those individuals changed our offense the minute they walked in."
Defensively, UT has to hope for the same. Even so, anytime a team can incorporate 31 new players, it's going to change the face of it.
Hopefully for the Vols, it will mean massive improvement across the board.
Pig Howard's Saga
Tennessee's leader in receptions—Alton "Pig" Howard—did not participate in spring practice, taking a leave of absence from the team for undisclosed reasons.
Now, he's back.
According to wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni, Howard is doing everything necessary to get back into good graces with the coaches and his teammates. According to a tweet by the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Evan Woodbery, Azzanni said:
Azzanni on WR Pig Howard: "He has a list of expectations that he needed to meet...So far, so good...He wants to be on the team."— Evan Woodbery (@TennesseeBeat) June 5, 2014
That's good news for the Vols, as Howard had a nice rapport with Justin Worley last year.
The Florida native had 44 catches for 388 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore in 2013, but without him, UT didn't miss much of a beat this spring. Von Pearson stepped into Howard's vacated slot receiver position and performed well.
With a bevy of receivers such as Marquez North, Josh Malone, Jason Croom, Josh Smith, Johnathon Johnson and others, Howard's absence wasn't too much of an impact. But that doesn't mean the Vols are better off without him.
Howard is going through workouts, and if he comes back, he'll almost certainly be a big part of the offense in 2014.
Back in early February, 12 current and former players were arrested or cited after police responded to a call for a party in Knoxville.
Among those was All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson and reserve defensive tackle Danny O'Brien.
Johnson was charged with purchasing alcohol for a person under age and resisting arrest, according to The Associated Press (via USA Today). O'Brien was charged with criminal impersonation, resisting arrest and underage consumption.
The duo has since participated in spring practice after being disciplined internally by head coach Butch Jones.
According to the Knoxville News Sentinel's Evan Woodbery, Johnson and O'Brien were on track to have their charges dismissed by paying court costs, serving community service and attending an alcohol class.
In the scheme of things, the party seemed nothing much more than an out-of-hand college incident, but it still wasn't the best start to the offseason for a Vols team needing leaders to emerge, especially since Johnson shunned the NFL to return.
But Johnson has had no issues prior or since, and this run-in with authorities is mundane compared to some of the Volunteers' issues of the past. It wasn't much more than a brief black eye that was handled quickly and completely.
Disappointing Draft for UT's Former Linemen
All five of Tennessee's starting offensive linemen left to test the waters of the NFL draft.
Ja'Wuan James, Zach Fulton, Alex Bullard and James Stone were out of eligibility and didn't have a choice. Antonio "Tiny" Richardson bolted a year early.
For all but James—whom the Miami Dolphins picked at No. 19 to the surprise of some, such as NFL.com's Mike Huguenin— the draft proved unkind.
The only other Vols offensive lineman taken in the seven rounds was Fulton, who was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the sixth round. James, Bullard and (shockingly) Richardson were not picked.
The linemen were celebrated during their careers in Knoxville, but three offensive line coaches and two head coaches throughout their tenures led to inconsistency. None of them ever played for a winning team at UT.
After frustrating careers in Knoxville, their neglect in the draft was a disappointing end. Now, they'll try to latch on to a professional team and build a career.
Meanwhile, Tennessee will try to move on without them. It won't be an easy task replacing a bunch of guys who had plenty of talent, even if they didn't have the wins to match.
Jauan Jennings' Commitment
There is no denying the athleticism of Blackman High School's Jauan Jennings.
The only question is where will the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, prospect play?
Tennessee is glad it gets to be the school that answers that.
The Vols promised him a shot at quarterback, and that's where he'll start his career.
When the 6'4", 186-pound athlete committed to UT back on April 7 over teams such as Alabama, Auburn, Ohio State and others, it was a major coup. Jennings is the top-ranked player in the state, according to 247Sports and the fifth-rated player in the composite rankings.
He has NFL potential at several positions, including safety, wide receiver and possibly even outside linebacker. But quarterback is where he wants to play.
Considering the struggles UT has had in getting a commitment from a signal-caller in the 2015 recruiting cycle, the look he gets at the position may be longer than usual.
That may not be bad news for the Vols.
Barton Simmons, 247Sports National Recruiting Analyst, noted of Jennings' film:
While Jennings still has enormous upside at other positions, it is increasingly hard to ignore his steady improvement as a passer. His spring film shows improved footwork, a quick release and a strong arm from the pocket
Having an athlete as dynamic as Jennings at quarterback would be a boon for the Vols. Regardless, his commitment is worth celebrating and major offseason news.
Scholarships Awarded to Jacob Gilliam and Devaun Swafford
It won't be the biggest news this offseason, but every year, teams give out scholarships to walk-on players.
This season, the Vols are doing it for a couple of players expected to be major contributors.
Fifth-year senior offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam of nearby Farragut and Devaun Swafford—a 5'11", 184-pound defensive back from Kingsport—were awarded scholarships, Butch Jones told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown on May 20.
Swafford played a lot at nickel as a true freshman last year and had a knack for big plays. He returned an interception for a touchdown against Florida, took a blocked punt for a touchdown against Georgia and recorded six tackles and a forced fumble against Vanderbilt.
Gilliam currently is ahead of touted junior college transfer Dontavius Blair on the depth chart at left tackle and stands to get some extremely important reps during his final season.
"That's one of the rewards of being a football coach," Jones told Brown, "when you can call 'em and say, 'You've worked yourself on scholarship,' and that's what our program is all about."
All recruiting information via 247Sports.
Brad Shepard is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Brad on Twitter here:
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