Tennessee Football: Projecting Who Will Win Volunteers' Open Starting Positions
Heading into the 2014 season, head Tennessee football coach Butch Jones needs to fill several open starting positions on the Volunteers roster.
In his second year on the job—a year when many new head coaches are first truly judged on their abilities to win football games—Jones faces a daunting schedule with a roster that includes zero returning starters on the offensive and defensive lines.
The Vols also lost key starters at the linebacker, running back and kicker/punter positions to graduation.
Jones and his staff managed to haul in the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the country in February, per Rivals. Many of those talented newcomers will have every chance to earn significant playing time and even starting positions before the Vols kickoff against Utah State on Aug. 31.
But the SEC is an unforgiving league. Young players who aren't used to the speed of the college game and competing against the size and strength of NFL-bound athletes are often targeted and exposed by opposing offensive and defensive coordinators.
No matter how talented Tennessee's incoming freshmen are, they face a tall order when it comes to beating out the Vols' veteran players who have patiently waited for their turns to make a name for themselves on Rocky Top.
Here are the players who are most likely to win the Vols' open starting positions in 2014.
Running Back: Marlin Lane
Marlin Lane's chance to shine is finally here.
After tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in high school late during his junior season, Lane was forced to watch from the sidelines as his recruiting stock nosedived and Clemson, his original school of choice, started recruiting over him at the running back position.
A visit to Tennessee in early January 2011 ended any chances of Lane attending Clemson, according to GoVolsXtra's Andrew Gribble, but it sealed the deal for him to spend his college career on Rocky Top.
For his first three seasons at Tennessee, Lane backed up Rajion Neal and occasionally took over starting duties when Neal was sidelined with various injuries.
Now, as a senior, Lane sits alone atop the Vols' running back depth chart, although freshman Jalen Hurd has the size and speed to push for a significant number of carries himself.
Despite the talented freshman nipping at his heels, Lane's experience, toughness and knack for finding holes in the defense will allow him to claim and keep the starting tailback position for the entire 2014 season.
Left Tackle: Dontavius Blair
With the impending departure of All-SEC left tackle Antonio Richardson to the NFL, Coach Jones desperately needed a player who could make an immediate impact at the position in 2014.
Enter JUCO offensive lineman and big man Dontavius Blair.
Snagging Blair's signature on national signing day 2014 was a landmark achievement for Jones' second class at Tennessee, as Blair was expected to immediately step in and fill Richardson's shoes at left tackle.
However, early reports in spring practices from Saturday Down South showed that Blair, who is 6'8" and weighs 320 pounds, was still unrefined in his technique and needed to work on his physical conditioning to stand up to four quarters of SEC play.
In fact, walk-on offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam surpassed Blair on the depth chart during the spring, according to Patrick Brown of Chattanooga Times Free Press. Gilliam eventually earned a scholarship with his impressive performance on the field.
Luckily for Jones and offensive line coach Don Mahoney, Blair has all summer to work on adjusting to the speed of the SEC and improving his fitness level. Once he does, his size should mean he'll have no problems grabbing and keeping a starting role at left tackle.
Left Guard: Marcus Jackson
In 2013, Marcus Jackson proved that he's prepared to do anything to help his team by sitting out for the year and redshirting, despite having played in every game during his freshman and sophomore seasons in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Saving a year of eligibility for Jackson was a shred move by Jones and Mahoney, as the team desperately needs experienced offensive linemen in both 2014 and 2015.
Jackson's game-day experience backing up current NFL linemen Dallas Thomas and Zach Fulton—not to mention his five career starts—will make him the default leader of the offensive line this season.
A 4-star high school recruit on ESPN in 2011, Jackson will have to take an active role in teaching his fellow offensive linemen the ropes once SEC play begins. It's up to him and a whole host of inexperienced but veteran linemen to protect Justin Worley and open up running room for Lane and Hurd.
Center: Mack Crowder
Since 2010, the center position on Tennessee's offensive line belonged to one man: James Stone.
Aside from a few snags during the 2011 season when Stone experimented by snapping the ball with his non-dominant hand, he played the position about as well as anyone could expect.
Now that Stone is fresh out of eligibility and battling for a position with the Atlanta Falcons, redshirt junior Mack Crowder is the next man up to replace him at center.
Crowder, a 3-star recruit according to 247Sports, redshirted during his first season on Rocky Top, played in two games as a redshirt freshman and saw action in eight games in 2013—including one as a starter.
That level of experience may not seem like much compared to most SEC offensive lines, but it makes him a battle-hardened veteran compared to the men who will fight alongside him in the trenches this fall for Tennessee.
Right Guard: Dylan Wiesman
Dylan Wiesman, a sophomore offensive lineman from Cincinnati, Ohio, played backup right guard behind Fulton during the 2013 season.
Ideally, no freshman should ever play as an offensive lineman, especially in the SEC, but Wiesman's toughness and aptitude at the position earned him playing time in 10 games last year.
Wiesman came to Tennessee as a highly regarded offensive lineman in his home state, and he chose the Vols over in-state schools like Cincinnati, Ohio State, Bowling Green and Miami of Ohio.
Every live snap Wiesman experienced during his freshman season will pay off exponentially during the Vols' 2014 campaign, as Mahoney will try to wring every ounce of experience and playbook knowledge out of his young players.
Right Tackle: Coleman Thomas
True freshman Coleman Thomas may have been one of Jones' biggest steals in the 2013 class.
Thomas was a Rivals 3-star recruit coming out of high school. Once he arrived in Knoxville, he quickly proved himself on the practice field during Tennessee's spring practices and ended up earning first-team reps, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel's Evan Woodbery.
At 6'6" and 311 pounds, Thomas has the size to make an immediate impact on Tennessee's offensive line.
Despite his head-turning play during the spring, Thomas still has to beat out redshirt junior Kyler Kerbyson for the starting right tackle position.
Kerbyson has the advantage of experience on his side, with 19 career games under his belt, but it will be tough for him to stop Thomas from surpassing him on the depth chart.
The battle for right tackle will wage on throughout the summer and into the season, as the two will likely split reps for the majority of the season.
Defensive End: Corey Vereen
Corey Vereen tends to come out of nowhere to make a name for himself.
He first did it as a 2013 recruit at Tennessee. Vereen, a 3-star defensive end and the 59th best linebacker according to Scout, arrived on Rocky Top without much fanfare. However, he quickly gained the respect of his teammates and coaches with his work ethic and determination to improve.
Late into the night, when most of his teammates and coaches were relaxing at home, Vereen was still grinding away in the Anderson Training Center.
His efforts paid off, and now he's making a name for himself on the field. Vereen not only fought his way onto the depth chart as a true freshman, but he also managed to make an impact during games, notching nine solo tackles during the 2013 season, including one sack on Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray.
Vereen is poised to have a breakout season in 2014. As Patrick Brown reports in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, it's apparent that Vereen's obsession with improvement hasn't wavered a bit since the day he stepped onto the Tennessee campus.
Defensive Tackles: Danny O'Brien and Trevarris Saulsberry
Danny O'Brien and Trevarris Saulsberry are set to anchor the Tennessee defensive line after the departures of Daniel McCullers and Daniel Hood.
Both have a modest amount of game-day experience. After redshirting his freshman season, O'Brien, a Rivals 4-star defensive tackle from Flint, Michigan, backed up nose guard Hood and played in all 12 games in 2013.
He notched eight solo tackles during the course of the year, including one sack on South Carolina's speedy quarterback Connor Shaw.
Saulsberry, a Rivals 3-star defensive tackle from Gainesville, Florida, played in four games as a redshirt freshman in 2012 and started to make his presence felt on the field in 2013 before an injury forced him to the sidelines for four games.
Both Saulsberry and O'Brien will be called on to plug the middle of the line and force the SEC's running backs to bounce to the outside. With Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Mike Davis and Derrick Henry on the schedule, that won't be an easy task.
Weak-Side Linebacker: Curt Maggitt
When Curt Maggitt tore his anterior cruciate ligament during Tennessee's 51-48 overtime loss to Missouri in 2012, few people expected that he would miss not only the rest of that season, but also the entire 2013 season as well.
Maggitt excelled at the weak-side linebacker position during his first two seasons before suffering a serious case of turf toe and the eventual knee injury that sidelined him for the final three games of his sophomore season.
His status remained unclear for much of the 2013 season, but it appeared as though he may suit up and take the field at any moment.
However, Maggitt ultimately decided to redshirt during his junior season to give his knee a chance to fully heal.
Now it's time for his year of recovery and physical development to pay off. Maggitt not only is primed to excel at the starting weak-side linebacker position, but his pass-rushing skills and elusiveness will also give him opportunities to line up at defensive end during passing downs.
Strong-Side Linebacker: Jalen Reeves-Maybin
Sophomore special teams ace Jalen Reeves-Maybin created one of the most memorable plays of the Vols' 2013 season.
Down 17-10 late in the third quarter against sixth-ranked Georgia, Tennessee stopped the Bulldogs near their own goal line on 4th-and-11.
As Georgia's punter rared back to send one deep into Tennessee territory, Reeves-Maybin broke through the Georgia defense and got a hand on the ball, sending it flying and then bouncing directly into the arms of Tennessee walk-on defensive back Devaun Swafford.
Swafford walked the ball into the end zone, tying the ballgame and awakening the frenzied roar of 102,455 strong that hadn't been heard in Neyland Stadium in nearly a decade.
It's plays like that, along with his speed, instincts and hard-hitting mentality, that will give Reeves-Maybin the first crack at strong-side linebacker in 2014.
Punter: Matt Darr
During his senior season at Frontier High School in Bakersfield, California, Matt Darr was rated as the top punter in the country by 247Sports.
After redshirting during his freshman season at Tennessee, Darr saw action in 11 games in 2011, six games in 2012 and zero in 2013.
His inconsistent play during his career at Tennessee allowed Michael Palardy to surpass him on the depth chart and pull double-duty as the Vols' kicker and punter.
Watching Palardy's highly successful senior season—especially after Palardy himself spent years struggling to kick accurately—may be just the boost Darr needs to regain his confidence and turn into the field-flipping weapon Jones needs him to become.
Kicker: Aaron Medley
Darr isn't the only Tennessee specialist who will have to fill Palardy's shoes.
Freshman and recent Knoxville arrival Aaron Medley is in line to claim the starting kicker position as soon as summer practices begin.
Meldey already has impressive leg strength for being just 18 years old, and he's capable of making field goals from 65 yards out, as reported by GoVolsXtra's Woodbery.
Although it's unlikely that Medley will ever be tasked with putting one through the uprights from that distance, having a kicker who is accurate from long range could mean the difference between going bowling or sitting at home in December for the fourth straight year for the Vols.