7 Things We've Learned About Tennessee Through Fall Camp So Far
When you're dealing with a "team of unknowns" entering a college football season like the Tennessee Volunteers are, there's no way of learning everything in less than two weeks of fall practice.
But the picture is becoming a bit less murky for head coach Butch Jones.
UT's talented troop of newcomers has elevated the level of play considerably. The Vols' trio of quarterbacks is taking a step forward after a rocky start. And there is an underlying sense of optimism as the youngsters begin to play faster and better.
But are the perceived improvements good enough to make a major impact in the win column?
Jones may have seen enough already from his team to make some decisions, including the most important lingering uncertainty—who is going to play quarterback.
UT's coach told John Brice and Chris Low on The Nation radio show Sunday night: "I think our quarterbacks are starting to perform now the way we expected. I'd like to get to a point where maybe even this week we name a starting quarterback, and we go with it."
Though there are plenty of questions remaining that need to be answered before the season kicks off Aug. 31 against Utah State, some are clearing up.
Let's take a look at seven things we've learned about the Vols through the first 10 days of fall camp.
Jalen Hurd Is a Future Star
Tennessee's coaches have spent half their time trying to temper the massive expectations on the shoulders of Jalen Hurd and the other half saying things that contradict halting the hype.
After the team's first scrimmage Saturday night, Butch Jones told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown that Hurd continues to "get better and better and better."
Considering Hurd's super performance in the spring-ending Orange and White Game where he had 93 yards on just 12 touches, that's huge for the Vols.
The first-year player from Hendersonville, Tennessee, continues to separate himself as one of Tennessee's top two runners and will be a major part of this team from Day 1.
Senior Marlin Lane is going to get a lot of carries and has the maturity and experience to be a consistent force for the Vols.
But at 6'3", 232 pounds, Hurd gives UT's offense a dimension it simply doesn't have without him on the field. Not only is Hurd the fastest of the Vols runners, he also has the ability to drag opponents for extra yardage.
With all the buzz surrounding Hurd, running backs coach Robert Gillespie tried to temper the fever pitch, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required), by saying the freshman running back is "not Superman."
The way he is drawing praise from players and coaches around camp, maybe all he's missing is the cape.
Joshua Dobbs Is Really Struggling
One of the players with the most excitement surrounding him exiting spring practice was sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
That has not carried over into the fall.
Though coach Butch Jones hasn't necessarily singled Dobbs out thus far, reports have not been promising about his start to August's practice.
Arm strength always has been a question in Dobbs' game. With the other stuff becoming concerns, it seems he has a ways to go before he can be depended upon with playing time.
After Saturday's first scrimmage, GoVols247's Wes Rucker noted the glaring omission of Dobbs' name when Jones praised the quarterbacks.
Rucker told B/R on Sunday: "I'm not sure anyone should hit the panic button just yet, but aside from a few moments here and there, Josh Dobbs hasn't looked great in this camp. He isn't spinning the ball that well and seems to be battling some accuracy issues. He's been missing throws he usually makes. As camp progresses, we'll see if this is some rust, a blip or a real problem."
Dobbs struggled considerably in his post-snap decision-making after being thrust into action out of necessity last year. From reading through his progressions to not taking care of the football, he just wasn't ready for SEC action.
Though a light seemed to come on this past spring, the first week has been a real step backward. The Vols need Dobbs to find his way quickly and keep the pressure on Justin Worley in the QB competition.
Nathan Peterman Is Not Going Quietly into That Good Night
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Nathan Peterman was written off, all but forgotten in UT's quarterback race.
After a disastrous half against Florida and a season-ending injury in 2013, the Fruit Cove, Florida, native couldn't get anything going this past spring as Justin Worley, Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs surged ahead of him in the quarterback race.
With Ferguson leaving the program and Dobbs getting off to a slow start, Peterman is taking advantage.
UT coach Butch Jones spent the better part of the first week complaining about the slow start for all three of his quarterbacks, but he had a much sunnier disposition Saturday following the team's first 90-plus play scrimmage.
And the first quarterback's name out of Jones' mouth was Peterman, according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker:
I think all of them are improving. I think Nate Peterman took some really very important steps in moving forward today, and so did Justin Worley. Justin’s starting to play with much more confidence, more command of the line of scrimmage. We still need more, but I see that overall development starting to happen.
It takes a strong will to battle past a forgettable performance like Peterman had in the return to his home state last year against the Gators. UT managed just 31 yards of offense and three first downs while committing four turnovers in the first half of an eventual 31-17 loss.
That was the only impression of Peterman Vols fans were left with considering a hand injury suffered during that game cost him the rest of the year.
But with three seasons of eligibility remaining, Peterman put that performance behind him, and that short-term memory is helping him move forward this fall. Can he give Worley a run for the quarterback job? The next couple of weeks will tell.
The Newcomers Help UT's Need for Speed
Perhaps the biggest need of many Butch Jones had to address on the recruiting trail was an upgrade of Tennessee's on-the-field speed at all positions.
With the influx of midterm offensive enrollees this past spring, a speed boost was evident. Now with all the youngsters thrown into the fray on defense, coaches told Volquest.com's Rob Lewis (subscription required) the change is just as noticeable:
"It's a night and day difference," UT linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said. "We have a lot more speed than we had before, but not just at linebacker, but also in front of us on the defensive line and on the back end."
Added defensive coordinator John Jancek:
There's no question we're faster and more athletic but that doesn't equate to being better if you can't tackle. We've got to challenge our guys to be more physical. With a young team you just can't emphasize that enough.
Players such as cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, safety Todd Kelly Jr., defensive linemen Dewayne Hendrix and Derek Barnett and linebacker Dillon Bates have elevated the athleticism. That need became evident following bloodbaths against Alabama, Auburn and Missouri a season ago.
But the Vols can't know if that question has been resolved until they get into the meat of the season. Early tests against Utah State and Oklahoma will be quality litmus tests, but speed means nothing if important elements such as angles and awareness don't accompany it.
Right now, the speed issue looks like it has been addressed. The Vols obviously need several years worth of recruiting classes to fix it, but the early signs are there that the 2014 team will be much quicker on its feet.
Derek Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix Are Going to Help Right Away
No freshman has been talked about more these past 10 days than 6'3", 267-pound former 4-star defensive end Derek Barnett.
Though the defensive line is one of the most difficult places to carve out a role as a true freshman, the Brentwood, Tennessee, end is standing out. It seems at least one coach or teammate is singling out something he does every day.
From giving maximum effort on an every-down basis to displaying excellent athleticism for a player his size, Barnett is turning heads.
Senior offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam told GoVols247's Wes Rucker that Barnett is the "epitome" of effort. Jones said in that article Barnett has "elevated the defensive line play."
Junior safety Brian Randolph told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown that Barnett is "always near the ball." And Jones said he has worked himself into a role on this football team.
Defensive line coach Steve Stripling mentioned to Rucker that Dewayne Hendrix is somebody who has stood out, along with Barnett.
The emergence of those two defensive ends who are pushing 270 pounds or more is simply massive for the Vols.
While UT is trying to find its best rotation on the defensive line of scrimmage, its two most consistent and dependable ends are Curt Maggitt and Corey Vereen—neither of which is overly big.
If the Vols think enough of Barnett and Hendrix to put them out there in SEC play, it could enable the Vols to bump Maggitt back to an outside linebacker position and put one of them on the field in obvious pass-rushing situations. It also can help the Vols be able to put in more of a jumbo package against run-heavy teams.
Barnett and Hendrix are off to a great start, and that's great news for the Vols.
Nobody Is Starting over Emmanuel Moseley at the 2nd Cornerback
A year ago, then-true freshman Cameron Sutton seized a starting cornerback spot the first week of practice in which he participated and never relinquished it.
Emmanuel Moseley is trying to duplicate the same feat.
The 6'0", 178-pound first-year speedster surpassed Malik Foreman early in spring practice to start at corner alongside Sutton, and he held it all through spring. Thus far into fall drills, he has showed no signs of losing it.
Though Moseley is still learning the proper techniques, he is holding his own every day in practices against UT's big, physical receivers. Defensive back Willie Martinez had high praise for Moseley, according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker:
Players, they know who a player is, and they know how a player acts, and he's a player. He's earned tremendous respect from his teammates, because everything that Emmanuel does is full-speed and with a great attitude. He may not know everything, you know, but he takes a lot of pride into it, and he performs. He may not look pretty. He may not have the proper footwork or backpedal. But he gets the job done. …And he's only going to continue getting better and better and better because of the way he works. That's the best part.
When Tennessee took a commitment from a skinny, little-known 2-star quarterback from Greensboro, North Carolina, last September, very few people who follow recruiting had heard of Moseley.
At the time, he was committed to Charlotte, and even after being elevated to his final 3-star ranking by the 247 composite rankings, his best offers besides the Vols were still just North Carolina State and East Carolina.
Since coming to UT in January, Moseley has gained an astounding 33 pounds, as Butch Jones said on The Nation radio show Sunday, according to UT football's official Twitter account.
It seems the rest of the country missed out on Moseley. Part of the reason he is starting at UT, of course, is necessity. But that should take nothing away from the kind of steal he has been so far.
The Other Josh Has Stolen the Show at Receiver
If there was one name on the tips of every Tennessee fan's tongue at the end of spring practice, it was former 4-star receiver Josh Malone, who scored three times in the Orange and White Game.
But it's another Josh who is turning heads this fall.
Sophomore Josh Smith shrugged off a struggle-filled first season in Knoxville, and he has arguably been the best receiver in camp so far. That's with Marquez North, Von Pearson and Pig Howard all playing well too. The former Christian Academy of Knoxville star has been the most talked-about player in camp.
"Josh is playing with a very high level of confidence right now," UT coach Butch Jones told GoVols247's Wes Rucker. "He's blocking, he’s playing physical and he’s making catches. He's making plays for us. I've been exceptionally pleased with him."
As for Malone, he has struggled in practice. There's no denying his talent, but he hasn't exactly shown up so far this fall. While it's a bit puzzling, he wasn't always consistent day-to-day in the spring either. Then, when it came game time, he blew up in the spring finale.
"It's still too early to know this for sure, but I'd be lying to say I haven't wondered if Malone is going to be a good practice player," Rucker told B/R. "It seems sometimes like he needs a good kick in the tail to get going when the big lights aren't on. He wouldn't be the first player to be like that."
Right now, Smith has a comfortable lead on Malone to be the starting receiver in three-out sets (along with North and Pearson), according to Rucker. That's good news for the Vols, who are extremely deep at the position.
Smith's success is a welcome surprise. Rather than get recruited over, he's elevated his game, which is exactly the response coaches hope for.
All quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted and practice observations were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports Composite and statistics gathered from CFBStats.com.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here: