Despite his preaching patience and all the youth and questions surrounding his team, Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones still expects to go bowling.
Never mind that the program hasn't reached the postseason since 2010. Even with 32 newcomers including many who will play significant roles, there are always high expectations at UT.
Jones has them, too.
He watched his first full crop of freshmen develop over the past few weeks. Perhaps the particularly surly mood he displayed can be translated into the belief that if the Vols play to their abilities, they could surprise.
Why else would he have told the Rotary Club of Knoxville on Tuesday: "When we go to a bowl game this year, we will have 14 college graduates on this year's team performing. That will be the most in the country."
Not if. When.
|2014 Tennessee Coaching Staff|
|Title||Name||Years on Team|
|Head Coach||Butch Jones||2|
|Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach||Mike Bajakian||2|
|Defensive Coordinator||John Jancek||2|
|Running Backs Coach||Robert Gillespie||2|
|Wide Receivers Coach/Recruiting Coordinator||Zach Azzanni||2|
|Tight Ends Coach/Special Teams Coordinator||Mark Elder||2|
|Offensive Line Coach||Don Mahoney||2|
|Associate HC/Defensive Line Coach||Steve Stripling||2|
|Linebackers Coach||Tommy Thigpen||2|
|Asst. HC/Defensive Backs Coach||Willie Martinez||2|
This is the second full season for UT's entire coaching staff, and just the simple fact that there is some continuity for a change is huge.
For instance, this is the first time in any of the offensive linemen's careers that they've had the same position coach for consecutive seasons. From teaching methods to strength-and-conditioning aspects, that familiarity can't be oversold.
What else the Vols' unproven staff brings to the program is still yet to be determined. They've been through the rugged conference wars of one season but were outmanned.
Now that Jones has a full class in tow for his second season, UT fans will really begin to see the glimmers of how his schemes and concepts translate into the nation's toughest league.
Jones has re-energized the fanbase with his elite recruiting and program-pumping propaganda, but it remains to be seen whether he can win in the SEC. While boosting the talent will have a direct, immediate effect, winning the way the Vols want to win will take time.
Jancek and Bajakian—and much of the staff, for that matter—have not yet proven they've got the coaching chops for the SEC. A 5-7 season a year ago isn't a fair barometer due to the roster in shambles they inherited, but it's the only measuring stick thus far.
This staff won at Central Michigan in time. It won at Cincinnati. If they stay together, the continuity and work they're doing on the recruiting trail could pay huge dividends.
What to Watch For on Offense
|Tennessee 2014 Offensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|QB||Justin Worley||Nathan Peterman||Joshua Dobbs|
|RB||Marlin Lane||Jalen Hurd||Devrin Young|
|WR||Marquez North||Jason Croom||Johnathon Johnson|
|WR||Josh Smith||Josh Malone||Jacob Carter|
|Slot||Von Pearson||Pig Howard||Vic Wharton|
|TE||Ethan Wolf||Brendan Downs||Daniel Helm|
|C||Mack Crowder||Dylan Wiesman||Coleman Thomas|
|OG||Jashon Robertson||Dylan Wiesman||Austin Sanders|
|OG||Marcus Jackson||Kyler Kerbyson||Austin Sanders|
|OT||Jacob Gilliam||Dontavius Blair||Marques Pair|
|OT||Kyler Kerybson||Coleman Thomas||Brett Kendrick|
A season ago, the Vols struggled to implement Bajakian's "power-spread" offense with the personnel already on the roster. From a heavy offensive line used to running man-blocking concepts instead of zone to a lack of speed at skill positions, it was a scheme mismatch.
Now the Vols have taken steps toward addressing their dearth of playmakers with some electrifying newcomers. Featuring a revamped line, UT should be more athletic (though inexperienced) in the trenches as well.
It's a work in progress, but there is no reason the Vols shouldn't improve on a unit ranked 12th in total offense a season ago. If the line gives quarterback Justin Worley time to get the ball to his talented targets, UT could enjoy an offensive resurgence.
Worley is the key to everything.
He struggled in 2013, completing 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions in eight games. Even during his two best performances (versus Georgia and South Carolina) he had mediocre numbers.
That isn't going to cut it this year. If the 6'4", 230-pound South Carolina native is able to stay in the pocket, he has to take command of the offense, as task which has eluded him thus far in his career.
Worley was sharp in the spring finale and after a sluggish start to camp has impressed many during the past two weeks. GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) said of Worley: "He also looks much better than he ever has from a physical standpoint, and he’s carrying himself like an SEC quarterback in every other way imaginable."
Considering neither Nathan Peterman nor Joshua Dobbs pressured Worley in the quarterback race this fall, his health is essential to the team's success. If he goes down, there will be much more uncertainty surrounding the position.
If his timing and tempo are improved, Worley can be the game manager UT needs, and for the Vols' sake, the more downfield plays he can produce, the better.
Many of those throws are going to target sophomore receiver Marquez North. A season ago, the 6'4", 221-pound receiver was UT's only downfield threat. Though he battled through injuries and was thrust into action from day one, he still finished with 38 catches for a team-best 496 yards and one touchdown.
This year, the Vols need North to take the next step toward stardom. He's the most talented in a stable full of elite (albeit unproven) potential playmakers. Worley and the Vols need a go-to player in crucial moments, which has to be North's role.
Finally, none of the weaponry matters if Worley has minimal time to throw the football.
Everybody who has read anything about UT this offseason knows the Vols return zero starters on the offensive line, but that doesn't mean they're going to be terrible. The group has shown some promise this fall, even if it's a unit thrown together with baling wire and twine.
A prime example of that is fifth-year senior and former walk-on Jacob Gilliam. After a career on the scout team, Gilliam emerged this spring as he surged ahead of JUCO transfer Dontavius Blair at the all-important left tackle position.
Rather than just lighting a fire under Blair, this fall proved Gilliam was legit. After earning a scholarship this May, the hometown feel-good story has held that job with a strong camp.
He'll be the Game 1 starter and has been one of UT's most consistent linemen. If that makes you nervous that UT is starting a walk-on, it's understandable. But Gilliam deserves the opportunity on his own merits, per GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required).
Strong left tackle play is the key to any good offensive line, so the microscope is firmly placed on Gilliam.
What to Watch For on Defense
|Tennessee 2014 Defensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|DT||Danny O'Brien||Trevarris Saulsberry||Dimarya Mixon|
|DT||Jordan Williams||Owen Williams||Michael Sawyers|
|DE||Curt Maggitt||Dewayne Hendrix||Kendal Vickers|
|DE||Corey Vereen||Derek Barnett||LaTroy Lewis|
|OLB||Jalen Reeves-Maybin||Dillon Bates||Chris Weatherd|
|MLB||A.J. Johnson||Kenny Bynum||Gavin Bryant|
|NB||Justin Coleman||Malik Foreman||Devaun Swafford|
|CB||Cameron Sutton||Riyahd Jones||D'Andre Payne|
|CB||Michael Williams||Emmanuel Moseley||Rashaan Gaulden|
|S||Brian Randolph||LaDarrell McNeil||Evan Berry|
|S||Devaun Swafford||Todd Kelly Jr.||Max Arnold|
|P||Matt Darr||Troy Waites||N/A|
Coming up with a depth chart for Tennessee's defense is as easy as quantum physics.
The Vols are going to be so versatile and multiple, there is no certainty what personnel will make up its formations from a down-to-down basis, much less game-to-game.
That's good news for Jancek. While UT is going to take plenty of lumps with a freshman-laden unit that is still at least one more recruiting class away from being strong, the Vols defense is so much faster than a season ago.
There is also better depth at all positions, even if it's unproven depth.
For instance, outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has enjoyed a great fall and is in line to start. But in pass-rushing situations, Chris Weatherd may be on the field. In nickel sets that are definite passing downs, the coverage skills of freshman duo Dillon Bates and Elliott Berry could be utilized.
Jancek has options—something that didn't exist a year ago.
While the line remains a major concern, the Vols have enough talented players to be much more versatile at important positions such as defensive end and nickelback.
The Vols will go as Curt Maggitt goes. He may be the most important player on the entire team.
UT is a much better defense with the 6'3", 251-pound redshirt junior defensive end on the field. Though he hasn't played a live snap since November 2012, Maggitt is the unequivocal team leader, and the Vols desperately need him.
When he's healthy, he's a game-changer. The problem is he hasn't been able to stay on the field. An ankle injury has sidelined Maggitt for much of camp, and UT is being extra cautious with him. If he can't stay healthy, a worrisome defensive line situation gets much bleaker.
With the Vols playing much more nickel this season, they've called on senior cornerback Justin Coleman to fortify a position that was brutal a season ago: nickelback.
The 5'10", 188-pound defensive back has never really performed up to expectations at boundary corner, but after a full offseason of learning nickel, Coleman's physicality and tackling ability should benefit his move closer to the center of the field.
That spot is incredibly important to UT's defense, and Coleman has shone this fall. Considering nickelback was a revolving door that led to countless big plays in 2013, Coleman has the chance to end his Tennessee career as a key player.
So many new names checker the depth chart for the Vols, but one steady, constant force in the center of that defense is senior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson.
The 6'2", 245-pound star bypassed the NFL to return to Knoxville for his senior season and is the anchor around which the entire unit will be built. His 324 career tackles is evidence that he has a nose for the football, even if he hasn't made as many splash plays as he would like.
With more talent and speed around him than at any time in his college career, the stage is set for Johnson to excel.
If he can show he is improved in his lateral game and coverage skills, he'll surge up NFL draft boards, and UT's defense will be vastly improved.
|Player Name||Injury||Expected Return Date|
|Cody Blanc||Torn Achilles||2015 Season|
|Charles Mosley||Broken Leg||2015 Season|
|Trevarris Saulsberry||Knee||Undisclosed (Near-Term)|
|Johnathon Johnson||Undisclosed||Undisclosed (Near-Term)|
|Vic Wharton||Undisclosed||Undisclosed (Near-Term)|
The Vols have stayed relatively healthy for the most part since the start of camp.
Neither Cody Blanc nor Charles Mosley were going to factor that much into the 2014 team, so the impact of their losses is minimal.
The other players on the list are a little more pressing, especially Maggitt and Saulsberry. Both defensive linemen have a history of injuries, but both are being relied on in a big way this season.
Unlike last year, the Vols have depth to soften the blow, but a loss of Maggitt's elite playmaking potential could be especially catastrophic to the defense. He returned to the field Thursday after missing a week of practice, which is huge news for UT.
Saulsberry has been slow to shake off the rust from missing most of last year and all of spring drills, but he has the size and athleticism to eventually start at UT's thinnest position of defensive tackle. He needs to return soon not only for depth purposes but because his ceiling is as high as any DT on the Vols' roster.
Freshman running back Jalen Hurd is the missing link to Tennessee's offensive turnaround.
The 6'3", 227-pound heavily recruited running back from Hendersonville, Tennessee proved early as a midterm enrollee that he commanded immediate playing time. He did the same throughout fall camp.
Blessed with superior size and dynamic speed, Hurd has the potential to be the game-breaking talent UT hasn't had in the offensive backfield since Travis Stephens. Hurd is a physical freak who is a threat to score every time he touches the football.
He has heard the questions about his height, and a voice from the Southern Cal War Room on national signing day was overheard saying Hurd was "soft", per KnoxBlogs.com. Hurd is different, but "different" also describes the next-level potential he has.
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie told The Tennessean's David Climer: "He's a focused kid. He's not a guy that feels like he has to fit in the crowd. He's not a follower. He has a different bounce to him, which is good. I think anybody that wants to be great isn't afraid to be different."
Even though he has the open-field wheels to run away from defenders, he has every-down potential to secure the tough yards, too.
Senior Marlin Lane is in line to start, but in an era where multiple running backs are a necessity, Hurd will receive plenty of touches. With proper blocking, he'll show quickly that the Vols simply can't afford to keep him on the sideline.
|Tennessee 2014 Schedule|
|Aug. 31||Utah State||Knoxville|
|Sep. 6||Arkansas State||Knoxville|
|Sep. 13||Oklahoma||Norman, OK|
|Sep. 27||Georgia||Athens, GA|
|Oct. 18||Ole Miss||Oxford, MS|
|Nov. 1||South Carolina||Columbia, SC|
|Nov. 29||Vanderbilt||Nashville, TN|
Tennessee's schedule is so difficult this season; very few games are certainties. But four in particular are pivotal.
Dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Chuckie Keeton is enough to make most teams shudder, especially one like UT that has struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks recently.
Throw in the fact that the Aggies led the Mountain West Conference in total defense last year, and that looks like a tall, early test for UT's youngsters.
Athlete-for-athlete, USU shouldn't be able to hang with the Vols, but Keeton could be a great equalizer. It's essential Tennessee takes care of business early to have a successful season. If UT slips it, it'll be a long season.
Tennessee hasn't beaten the Gators since Ron Zook roamed the sideline all the way back in 2004. That's nine years of frustrating futility.
Even during their poor 2013 season, the Gators handled the Vols by two touchdowns. This year, UF comes to Knoxville with its coach Will Muschamp on the hot seat and tons of offensive question marks.
It's tough to predict a UT win when it hasn't happened in so long, but if the Vols get this one, it would give them a ton of momentum heading into a grueling midseason stretch. It also would go a long way in making them bowl-eligible, considering that's a game few pundits are picking UT to win.
A season ago, Maty Mauk and the Tigers' able stable of star offensive skill players demoralized UT 31-3 in Columbia. That night, the programs looked extremely far apart.
But Mizzou has lost most of its playmakers on both sides of the football, and the Vols have upgraded their team speed considerably—the team's greatest weakness from a season ago.
The game will be much closer than it was in 2013, but can the Vols break through for a win? If they don't get this one or Florida, making a bowl is going to be an uphill battle.
The Commodores' winning streak over UT has reached two games, which is difficult for every Vols fan to stomach.
But James Franklin is gone. Derek Mason is the new coach in Nashville, and while he has some talent left over from his predecessor's regime, there are numerous holes (like quarterback) and question marks (such as transitioning to a 3-4 defensive base).
Last season, VU knocked Tennessee out of a bowl game with a controversial win in Knoxville that featured a late overturned ball spot. This year, that game could have the same meaning.
Prediction: 6-6, 3-5 SEC
When everything is said and done, Tennessee will do enough to make a bowl game. There's too much talent on the roster, even if it's young.
Even though they'll go into the final three games winless in the conference, the Vols will beat Mizzou, Kentucky and Vanderbilt to close the season and secure a lower-tier bowl berth. A bowl victory will give Jones his first winning season on Rocky Top and be a major catalyst for the future.
Johnson will be an All-SEC linebacker, but he won't be a first-team All-American. North also will receive all-conference honors, as will Cameron Sutton.
Hurd, tight end Ethan Wolf, guard Jashon Robertson and defensive end Derek Barnett are all going to garner freshman All-SEC awards, and a firm foundation will be built for Jones' program.
All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports composite rankings. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com. All observations were gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:
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