Joshua Dobbs may be the leader of the Tennessee Volunteers, but in the end, no player will determine the team's success as much as Josh Malone will.
Last season, Dobbs was a strong rushing threat, as his 671 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns were both tops among SEC quarterbacks. His threat as a passer, however, wasn't quite as potent.
In short, Dobbs needs a reliable go-to receiver to emerge, which in turn would open up Tennessee's run game and make Dobbs a true dual-threat quarterback.
That's where Malone comes in.
At 6'3" and nearly 200 pounds, Malone has the size to become a dominant SEC receiver. The former 4-star recruit improved steadily from his injury-marred freshman season into a promising sophomore campaign, even though he was stuck behind Pig Howard and Von Pearson for most of the year.
With both Howard and Pearson now gone, it's up to Malone and Josh Smith to become the focal points of the Vols offense. But even though he'll miss spring practice for undisclosed reasons, Malone still has the edge over Smith to become Tennessee's No. 1 wide receiver.
Take a look at Malone's 75-yard touchdown catch last season against Kentucky, his most notable highlight of the season:
The first noticeable thing from Malone on the play was his burst off the line of scrimmage. The Wildcats secondary was sitting in a zone defense, with cornerback Cody Quinn (No. 16) playing about six yards off Malone.
Typically, it's difficult to burn any corner in a zone defense, especially an experienced senior like Quinn. But even though the camera doesn't show the full development of Malone's route, it's easy to see that he made a nice cut to get outside position.
After some nifty mobility in the pocket by Dobbs, he delivers a 55-yard strike to Malone, who has a step on Quinn. Malone makes a nice catch just over Quinn's helmet, shakes him off and scampers into the end zone to give Tennessee the lead.
It's easy to give most of the credit to Dobbs, and he certainly deserves credit for eluding the pressure and delivering a perfect pass to Malone. But it was Malone who broke the zone coverage with great speed and a crisp route, turning the play into a big touchdown and a game-changer for the Vols.
Though his catch against Kentucky was perhaps his best of the season, his overall performance against the Georgia Bulldogs was his best game of the year. In the Vols' thrilling 38-31 victory over their SEC rival, Malone netted a season-high five receptions for 60 yards, both of which topped all Tennessee receivers in that game.
It's a small sample size, but it certainly proves that Malone is capable of stepping up in big games.
Provided Malone can stay healthy, he'll certainly have his hands full. Having rushed 617 times last season (No. 13 in the nation), Tennessee's run-heavy offense will face some of the nation's best run defenses next season:
|2015 Rush Defense Rankings of Tennessee's Top 2016 Opponents|
|Team||Week Played (Date)||Rush Yards/Attempt||NCAA Rush Defense Rank|
|Alabama||Week 7 (Oct. 15)||2.4||1|
|Missouri||Week 12 (Nov. 19)||3.3||7|
|Florida||Week 4 (Sept. 24)||3.4||12|
|Georgia||Week 5 (Oct. 1)||4.0||43|
In those games, it's all but guaranteed that Dobbs will need to throw the ball more than usual. Malone will need to utilize his speed and route-running abilities to give him a reliable, consistent target.
Overall, Tennessee will utilize the run game to spearhead its offense. Though Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara will lead the way on the ground, it takes effectiveness both on the ground and through the air to become part of college football's elite.
In order for the Volunteers to attain such a lofty achievement this season, Malone will need to continue his development into the Vols' No. 1 receiver role. In doing so, he will also become Tennessee's X-factor.