Tennessee Football: Strengths, Weaknesses and Secret Weapons

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Tennessee Football: Strengths, Weaknesses and Secret Weapons
USA TODAY Sports

Appreciating the rebuilding process is difficult when it's not yielding wins. Tennessee coach Butch Jones knows that, but he also understands growing pains are inevitable in 2014.

"It's going to be a great challenge, only having 12 seniors," Jones said at a Big Orange Caravan stop in May, according to 247Sports' Chris Vannini. "It's like raising your kids. We're going to be exceptionally young, but it’s also invigorating. It's exciting. Our patience will be challenged, but they're very talented."

For Tennessee to have success, Jones is going to have to work a little magic. The Vols must first find the things they do well, utilize them, then mask the shortfalls.

Along the way, young players are going to have to make veteran plays.

It's an unenviable—but unavoidable—situation for a program forced to play up to 25 newcomers.

The feeling-out process for the coaching staff has to happen quickly. Utah State looms Aug. 31, and on-the-job training has consequences.

Can the young Vols find themselves quickly and get into a bowl game for the first time since 2010, or could they even surprise some folks and contend for a wide-open SEC East? All that depends on how quickly the team matures.

USA TODAY Sports

 

Strengths

There are few teams in the nation that have stockpiled as much pass-catching talent as Tennessee.

Though most of them are unproven, the top targets for whoever wins UT's quarterback battle are going to be difficult to defend.

Marquez North and Josh Malone were two of the most highly recruited prospects in their recruiting cycles. They've got the size, speed and skills to be among the league's best receivers.

Talented slot receivers Alton "Pig" Howard and Von Pearson, as well as jumbo receiver Jason Croom, also have the potential to break out.

Lots of Ability; Lots to Prove
Player Size/Class Prospect Ranking Receptions Yards Touchdowns
Marquez North 6'4", 221 So. 4-star No. 10 WR 38 496 1
Alton "Pig" Howard 5'8", 186 Jr. 4-star No. 36 WR 57 442 4
Jason Croom 6'5", 234 So. 4-star No. 31 WR 18 269 2
Josh Smith 6'1", 197 So. 3-star No. 193 WR 12 182 1
Von Pearson 6'3", 181 Jr. 4-star No. 2 JUCO WR 0 0 0
Josh Malone 6'3", 202 Fr. 4-star No. 5 WR 0 0 0
Vic Wharton 5'11", 192 Fr. 3-star No. 19 ATH 0 0 0
Ethan Wolf (TE) 6'5", 243 Fr. 3-star No. 14 TE 0 0 0
Daniel Helm (TE) 6'4", 232 Fr. 4-star No. 5 TE 0 0 0

UTSports.com, 247Sports.com

Howard did not participate in spring drills at UT, but after meeting with his teammates and coaching staff, he is working toward rejoining the team, receivers coach Zach Azzanni told The Sports Animal.

[Howard] has a list of expectations he needs to meet in order to jog out through that Power T here in the fall. Whether it's academically, socially, football-wise…just some things between me, him and Coach Jones that he needs to prove to us, his teammates, himself that he can do on a daily basis consistently. So far, so good.

Don't overlook a talented freshman tight end duo of Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm, either. There are question marks about their experience, but there is no doubting ability.

The Vols' linebackers also should be stout with the return of Curt Maggitt, who will put his hand down and play a rush end in nickel situations.

The redshirt junior sat out last year rehabbing a knee injury and will team with senior A.J. Johnson to form a formidable duo. ESPN's Chris Low rated Maggitt as the league's third-best linebacker with Johnson right behind him at fifth.

Between Maggitt and Johnson, the Vols return 410 total tackles, but the pair has got to improve on their impotent disruption plays. They've accounted for just 3.5 career sacks, 31.5 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and no interceptions.

If the addition of speedy youngsters like Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Dillon Bates and Neiko Creamer upgrades the talent, the second level really could be a bright spot.

As B/R's Barrett Sallee notes, if Jones can keep his quarterbacks healthy, his offenses have consistently thrived. Of the seven years he has coached, five have featured offenses that produced at least 417 yards per game.

Even though there are plenty of youth and questions, the Vols can take comfort in knowing they've got an innovative offensive coach with history in his corner.

Butch Dill/Getty Images

 

Weaknesses

The biggest roadblock facing Tennessee's climb from the dark ages can be found in the trenches.

Over the past few years, the Vols have been awful when it comes to generating a pass rush. According to ESPN, UT hasn't cracked the league's top five in sacks since 2007. The past three years, Tennessee has finished last, last and next-to-last.

Suddenly, replacing all four starters doesn't seem like a bad thing.

Several of Tennessee's nine freshmen could play on the defensive front. The talent is there, but it was a major team weakness this spring, and considering the experience is a crucial component to play on the defensive line, it's difficult to be optimistic.

Freshmen on the Front: First-year DL Who Could Play
Name Pos Size Prospect Ranking
Derek Barnett DE 6'3", 267 4-star No. 11 SDE
Dewayne Hendrix DE 6'4", 273 4-star No. 7 SDE
Charles Mosley DT/OG 6'5", 374 4-star No. 24 DT
Michael Sawyers DT 6'3", 299 3-star No. 27 DT
Dimarya Mixon DT 6'3", 266 3-star No. 41 DT
Jakob Johnson DE 6'4", 230 3-star No. 28 ILB
Kendal Vickers (RS) DE 6'3", 254 3-star No. 87 WDE
Joe Henderson DE 6'4", 232 3-star No. 22 WDE
Jashon Robertson DT/OG 6'3", 306 3-star No. 40 OG

UTSports.com; 247Sports.com

UT also must replace all five offensive line starters, and while the old guard underachieved throughout their careers, it's ridiculous to underestimate their loss.

Tennessee's new crew up front hasn't played meaningful snaps together. It's going to be a growing process, and the SEC is tough on baby steps.

Shoring up the holes in the secondary is going to be vital for a team that watched 10-yard plays turn into long touchdowns throughout 2013 because of a lack of athleticism on the back end.

LaDarrell McNeil is a former 4-star prospect who was a major weak link a season ago. He lacked good enough speed to ever be a weapon in coverage, and his poor angles led to multiple big plays.

Justin Coleman is a rising senior cornerback who never proved to be good enough to play outside. He'll be bumped to nickelback for his final season, and it's his last shot to make his mark.

UT signed tons of defensive backfield talent, so if McNeil and Coleman don't improve significantly, they won't be in the starting lineup.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

 

Secret Weapons

One glimpse of Von Pearson's highlight video makes it a complete head-scratcher that Utah and Illinois were his best offers before Tennessee came calling.

At 6'3", 181 pounds, Pearson has the perfect blend of size and athleticism to be a star. 

When Howard was going through his hiatus, the Vols placed Pearson in the slot. All he did was turn heads and become a major spring story.

What's even more impressive is that he isn't too far removed from working fast-food counters and wondering if he'd ever get an opportunity. UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told Nooga.com's Daniel Lewis:

Von brings a unique perspective and has been a good resource for the other 14 newcomers that are here this winter for the first time. His perspective is, he's seen the other side. He's seen what it's like to work at McDonald's, to do the same thing day in and day out, at an 8-5 job or a 9-5 job.

With his skill set, Pearson is going to make some serious plays immediately.

One of the biggest keys to Tennessee's defensive progression is finding a space-eating defensive tackle who can wreak havoc from the interior.

Rising junior Trevarris Saulsberry has that ability. He just has to stay healthy.

At 6'4", 297 pounds, the Gainesville, Florida, native has the size and strength to anchor a line. He missed eight games last year with a knee injury after standing out as UT's best defender against Oregon. He also was out this spring.

For a player who has just 10 total tackles in nine games to be relied upon so heavily is a scary proposition for UT, but Saulsberry has shown glimpses of his immense ability. If he can stay on the field, he'll be a force.

Maggitt and Johnson are going to get the preseason headlines at linebacker, but UT's most talented defender may be a youngster who has never taken a college snap.

Vol legacy Dillon Bates—son of UT legend Bill Bates—chose to spend his college days in Knoxville rather than go to Alabama or Florida.

At 6'3", 216 pounds, he has the versatility a team needs when it is going to play as much nickel as the Vols are this year. Bates has elite coverage skills and can still pack a punch in the box. Though it wouldn't hurt him to get a little bigger, Bates is going to have his opportunity early.

It wouldn't be surprising to see him secure the other starting linebacker spot as a true freshman, and his abilities can go a long way in helping UT shore up its defense.

 

All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports Composite.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:

@Brad_Shepard

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