Tennessee Football: 5 Players Who Have Surprised Us in 2014
The Tennessee Volunteers' 2014 season is off to an expected start with wins over Utah State and Arkansas State and a loss to the Oklahoma Sooners.
While the team's win-loss record to this point has played out like most analysts predicted, a few new and old faces have emerged as unexpected difference-makers on both offense and defense.
Last season, cornerback Cam Sutton and defensive end Corey Vereen were the surprising standouts from a freshman class that arrived without much fanfare, while veteran kicker Michael Palardy completed one of the most impressive career turnarounds in Tennessee history.
Likewise, the 2014 season has already produced a handful of surprises, as several of Tennessee's freshmen—as well as a few upperclassmen—have turned into the playmakers the Vols so desperately need.
Here are five players who have surprised us the most on this young Tennessee team so far in 2014.
The biggest knock on Josh Smith last season was the fact that he couldn't reliably catch the ball.
While Smith showed a knack for running crisp routes and getting open, he had too many untimely drops that could have helped the Vols generate big chunks of yardage and convert first downs.
This season, however, Smith is showing he's one of Tennessee's best wide receivers and a strong presence in the offensive two-deep roster.
Unfortunately, Smith suffered a high-ankle sprain against Oklahoma last week and may have to sit out when the Vols face off against the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, according to Charles Odum of the Associated Press (h/t USA Today).
Tennessee will need Smith healthy by the time Florida rolls into Knoxville on Oct. 5 to take full advantage of the Gators' struggles defending the deep ball.
A 3-star recruit on 247Sports, Ethan Wolf's arrival on Rocky Top in January was overshadowed by the presence of fellow freshman tight end Daniel Helm.
Despite Helm's composite 4-star rating, Wolf quickly proved to be the better of the two and soon won the starting tight end position.
In Tennessee's first two games, Wolf's presence showed that offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian's scheme last year was severely handicapped by the lack of quality tight ends on the Vols' roster.
Before suffering a high-ankle sprain against Arkansas State, Wolf hauled in eight catches for 46 yards, but his biggest contribution has been his blocking—a desperate need for a team with such an inexperienced and unsteady offensive line.
Wolf should be ready to go against Georgia on Saturday, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press's Patrick Brown, and the Vols will need him to open up more opportunities downfield for Justin Worley and buy him precious seconds of protection in the pocket.
Freshman Derek Barnett will be a major force on the Tennessee defensive line in the near future and is earning the respect of opposing offensive linemen.
Barnett has already notched 11 total tackles—six solo and five assisted—in 2014.
As the first true freshman in program history to start at defensive end, Barnett's presence on the line for the season opener against Utah State seemed like a move made more out of necessity than anything else. But Barnett quickly shattered any potentially low expectations, and his speed and ability to get into the backfield caused headaches for the senior-laden Oklahoma Sooners' offensive line.
In fact, his five tackles—including one for a loss—were season highs in last Saturday's game, according to Jason Hall at SaturdayDownSouth.com.
After spending time at defensive end in 2013 behind Jacques Smith, senior Jordan Williams bulked up over the offseason, adding 24 pounds to his frame and earning a starting spot at defensive tackle.
The presence of Williams and Danny O'Brien has been a huge factor in the Vols' improved run defense, as both are getting consistent pushes against opposing offensive lines and are limiting big plays on the ground.
Williams' biggest test may be in just one week, when he faces off against Georgia and its star running back, Todd Gurley.
If he and O'Brien can simply force Georgia's offense to move away from running it up the gut and instead throw screen passes and sweeps to Gurley, it will be a small victory for the Tennessee defense.
While Justin Worley was the most likely choice to claim the starting quarterback position during spring and summer camp, it also seemed like he hadn't done enough to truly separate himself from the competition.
But three games into the 2014 campaign, it's clear Worley is a different player than he was last season. While he hasn't made any miraculous strides in terms of arm strength or scrambling ability, he has shown a much-improved grasp on the offense, including his progressions and decision-making abilities.
Worley's improvement is no doubt helped along by the Vols' well-stocked wide receiver corps, but he also no longer has the luxury of being protected by an offensive line that's now playing on Sundays.
For Worley to truly show off his development, he will need more time from his offensive line. Indeed, one of the Vols' primary areas of focus during the bye week was creating better protection for Worley, according to the Associated Press.
However, the young and inexperienced players tasked with protecting Worley aren't just responsible for buying him time to complete passes—they're also protecting his health.
Worley was sacked five times by the Sooners on Sept. 13; that simply can't happen again for Worley to finish the season injury-free.
If the line can find a way to improve before the Vols get deep into SEC play, Worley can live up to his newfound potential and lead the Vols to a few upset wins along the way.