Tennessee Football: Final Winners and Losers from Spring Ball
Tennessee's spring practice closed with a whirlwind Orange-and-White Game where points were scored at a dizzying pace, and concerns were compounded about a defense already riddled with questions.
Even so, head coach Butch Jones noted on several occasions since that he was pleased with the team's progress.
The Vols are young, and they're more talented than they were a season ago, but there are still plenty of the potholes that come along the long road of rebuilding a program.
"It's like I tell our football team: The team that has the most talent doesn't necessarily win," Jones told The Daily Beacon's Dargan Southard and Troy Provost-Heron in his post-spring Q&A. "It's the team that has the best team…
"We only have 12 seniors on our football team right now, so leadership from everyone, every class is going to be at a premium."
The Vols are looking for leaders. They're looking for consistency. And they're looking for playmakers. Some of those were found this spring; some weren't.
Let's take a look at the Vols' post-spring winners and losers.
Quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Winners: The Freshmen
Tennessee welcomed an abnormally high number of midterm enrollees into the program as part of its massive recruiting class—an invaluable boost of experience for a team needing it.
The early returns were overwhelmingly positive.
Of the 14 newcomers, 11 were freshmen. While it's no surprise for junior college left tackle Dontavius Blair, receiver Von Pearson and defensive tackle Owen Williams to be in the rotation, the volume of youngsters who'll find themselves in the two-deep is astounding.
Running back Jalen Hurd, receiver Josh Malone, tight ends Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf, right tackle Coleman Thomas, defensive tackle Dimarya Mixon and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley all either won starting jobs or are firmly in the mix.
They elevated the overall talent and competitiveness of the roster even more than expected.
The Vols couldn't afford many misses in their efforts to reload a deteriorated roster, and so far, it seems like Butch Jones accomplished that.
Losers: Defensive Line
Once left offensive tackle Tiny Richardson declared for the NFL draft, most of the worry swirling around Tennessee's trenches was focused on the offensive line.
The concern now has shifted about three inches.
UT's D-Line struggled mightily during spring, causing coaches to move players everywhere trying to get any push and athleticism on the field.
That included moving linebacker Curt Maggitt to end in nickel formations, Jordan Williams and Dimarya Mixon from end to tackle in certain situations and Jason Carr from defense to offense.
The Vols desperately need rising redshirt junior Trevarris Saulsberry to get back on the field and be the force he showed glimpses of pre-injury against Oregon and Alabama in 2013.
They also need their bevy of 4-star prospects arriving on campus this summer to be ready to play immediately. Said ESPN's Chris Low:
Sophomore Corey Vereen was a bright spot at end, but there's not much in the way of proven players up front defensively for Tennessee, particularly at the tackle positions. The Vols will have to lean heavily on freshmen on the defensive line—Dewayne Hendrix, Michael Sawyers, Derek Barnett and Charles Mosley— and none of those four arrive on campus until this summer.
UT has to find an able stable of linemen, or it'll be a long season in the rugged SEC.
Winners: Joshua Dobbs
In sports, the last impression lasts longer.
That's why there's a certain amount of buzz surrounding sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs heading into the offseason.
Never mind him potentially being third on the (nonexistent) depth chart, last we saw Dobbs he was showing out in the spring game, completing six of nine passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns.
He also added a 59-yard touchdown run.
While rising senior Justin Worley probably leads Tennessee's four-man quarterback derby, Dobbs gained some serious ground on him and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson, who'd earned a split of first-team reps by the end of spring.
There's no questioning Dobbs' tools or his intelligence. He just hasn't put everything together yet.
If he continues to progress this offseason and shines in situational scrimmages the way he did during the Orange and White Game, he'll be a serious contender to challenge Worley and Ferguson to start.
Losers: LaDarrell McNeil
With fellow safety Brian Randolph out for the spring, LaDarrell McNeil had a prime opportunity to move beyond a disastrous sophomore season and turn a corner.
Instead, the junior struggled again this spring, attempting to lead a unit that needs a major upgrade in talent and speed.
"He still has a lot of room for growth and development," Butch Jones told Chattanoogan.com's Larry Fleming. "Our entire safety position needs to step up.
"We had way too many missed tackles last year. The overall communication, they are responsible for getting the back end lined up but also the linebackers as well."
McNeil has the talent, but he isn't fast enough to get away with taking poor angles on ball-carriers, and that burned the Vols multiple times in 2013.
With an uber-talented trio of safeties replenishing the roster this spring in Rashaan Gaulden, Todd Kelly Jr. and Cortez McDowell, McNeil could be in trouble. He had a big advantage with his experience, but so far, he hasn't parlayed it into a secure starting spot.
Winners: Curt Maggitt
Tennessee lacked playmakers on defense last year, and one of the biggest reasons why was Curt Maggitt recovering from a torn ACL.
The 6'3", 244-pound linebacker/defensive end returned to the field this spring, and he immediately upgraded the Vols' pass rush. As he gets reacclimated to the speed of the game, he could round into All-SEC form.
He certainly has the potential.
Defensive coordinator John Jancek moved Maggitt to end in pass-rushing situations when the team is in the nickel. Maggitt still has the athleticism to play on the second level as well, giving UT a strong one-two punch at linebacker with A.J. Johnson.
He was so vital to UT in his return this spring that he earned the team's Al Wilson Leadership award.
"It's a great feeling," Maggitt said after the spring game. "Al Wilson is someone me and A.J. look up to a lot. I am just trying to do my best to be a leader for this team. I feel appreciated."
Maggitt's vocal leadership is important, but it would be even more helpful to the Vols if he led by putting the quarterback on the ground. If this spring is any indication, he will.
Losers: Dontavius Blair
With a wide-open path to the starting left tackle spot, junior college transfer Dontavius Blair was basically handed the job this spring.
He promptly lost it. To a fifth-year senior walk on named Jacob Gilliam.
UT head coach Butch Jones shed a little light on Blair's struggles to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) back in the spring.
I don't know if you can say (Blair is coming along) slower. There's a lot going at him when you're playing the left tackle position, so the speed of the game, understanding the play, snap counts, defensive fronts, body language of the defense. I think he's just going through the maturation phase of learning what it takes, and then being in shape to play every down in an up-tempo offense.
Whatever his issues are, the Vols need him to fix them in a hurry. At 6'8", 300 pounds, with long arms and a huge lower body, Blair has the physical attributes to be a quality SEC offensive lineman.
The light just needs to come on mentally and from a conditioning standpoint.
If it does, it'll be good news for UT. Gilliam can provide depth, but Blair is the one who needs to wake up.
Winners: Veteran Skill Players
Marquez North's physical appearance and elite skills leave little doubt about his immense potential.
But in 2013, all the extra attention he was shown by defenders stunted his ability to put up huge numbers.
With freshman Josh Malone and junior college receiver Von Pearson now in the fold, North is freer to roam around with less attention. He responded with a monster spring that has everybody in orange excited.
"Marquez, from day one, came in with a very positive attitude and a very mature approach," UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown. "As much as anything, he wants to be great, and he's worked really hard."
His talent blended with that work ethic spells a bright future for North.
Another player who works hard and is beginning to see the fruits of his labor is senior Marlin Lane, whose rededication to his craft led to a standout spring.
Again, the arrival of a newcomer (Jalen Hurd) has expedited the growing process for Lane, but in a different way than North. Quite simply put, Hurd's arrival meant Lane's job is in jeopardy, and Lane has responded.
The youngsters are making the veterans better, which is exactly what competition is supposed to do.
Losers: Second-Team Defense
As Tennessee's offense racked up 762 yards of offense during the spring finale, one thing became abundantly clear:
The Vols need some serious defensive help.
While the first team showed some flashes, UT's reserves were abused all game long. It was a familiar refrain from the rest of spring.
Now with 14 of the 18 players set to arrive this summer projecting to the defensive side of the ball, all of those players UT trotted out there on defense are on notice. There's a wealth of talent coming to Knoxville, and most of the positions are up for grabs.
The bottom line is defensive coordinator John Jancek is having to rebuild a defense that wasn't very good to begin with virtually from scratch.
Freshmen are expected to be all over the field, and youngsters are going to have to play well for the Vols to make any noise in 2014.
Whatever the answers to the defense's many questions are, they weren't obvious during the spring. At best, the group tread water.