Tennessee Football: New Year's Resolutions for the Volunteers

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 30, 2015

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 12:  Cameron Sutton #7 of the Tennessee Volunteers celebrates against the Oklahoma Sooners during the game at Neyland Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Knoxville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It's time for the Tennessee Volunteers to clear the clothes hanging off the treadmill, learn how to better manage their time, max out the ol' 401k and pick up that hobby they've been meaning to start.

Well, not really. 

But coach Butch Jones and the Vols should have a few New Year's resolutions on the agenda. As the program turns the corner from upstart dark horse to one of the SEC's favorites in 2016, UT must ramp up its own expectations. 

Many others already believe in that UT talent, including the head coach of the Vols' Outback Bowl opponent Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan.

It's been a challenge getting ready for Butch's team. I mean, they've done a terrific job all season long, played one of the most competitive—if not the top—schedules in the country. And you watch the way that they've just gotten better and better with the amount of youth that Coach is playing, it's been really impressive to see the way that they've improved in all three phases.

Opening up the offense, finishing games, playing to the talent level on defense and restocking the shelves with elite prospects are all things that have been heavily discussed lately.

But with Tennessee getting an early start on the year by playing Jan. 1 against Northwestern, the Vols can get going quickly.

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Unlike a lot of resolutions, they can't just start strong and fail to keep them going, either. The fans on Rocky Top are pleased overall with the Jones regime, and most think he and his staff can get things done, but losing several close calls early in the season left ruffled feathers.

The Vols are ready to return to competing for championships, and the roster certainly appears in the shape to do just that.

If they aren't able to do it in a 2016 that has been circled on many calendars since Jones brought in that first strong, full recruiting class, doubt will seep in. So let's take a look at some things the Vols must resolve to do once '16 rolls in.

Live up to the hype

Oct 10, 2015; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones on the sideline during the second half against the Georgia Bulldogs at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee won 38-31. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee really couldn't have experienced a more positive month without doing anything, as it sets up for the Vols' future in the SEC East.

Sure, new Georgia coach Kirby Smart, new South Carolina coach Will Muschamp and new Missouri coach Barry Odom may wind up setting the college football world on fire. But, on the surface, all three schools lost legendary coaches for their respective programs and replaced them with serious question marks.

Throw in all Florida is losing from a defense that carried them along with quarterback Will Grier, and the East could be Tennessee's for the taking.

Meanwhile, Jones and Kentucky's Mark Stoops are going to be the longest-tenured coaches in the division. That's crazy.

The Vols simply must take advantage. These are the types of historical seismic shifts in which elite programs seize momentum. If Jones doesn't next season, the questions must begin to be asked whether or not he's the long-term answer.

Eight wins with the possibility of nine this season is a strong step in the right direction. But with oodles of talent returning across the board for the Vols, that UT roster is going to be in the top two or three in the league and probably the best in the East. That must translate into wins.

Folks around the Southeast, such as Bleacher Report colleague Barrett Sallee and South Carolina sports radio personality William Gunter, are having to take notice of Tennessee's loaded pantry of talent.

The national buzz doesn't just start next August, either. It begins right now. No. 23 Tennessee is expected to beat 13th-ranked Northwestern by more than a touchdown.

Vegas loves the Vols, and so do the talking heads and fans voting in polls across the country. The Vols now have a target on their back, and they will all next year, too. They'll be favorites in many of the games they play, but they should be.

Tennessee should represent the East in Atlanta in 2016, no questions asked. There are no excuses anymore.

Revamped receivers 

Sep 19, 2015; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers wide receiver Preston Williams (7) celebrates with wide receiver Jauan Jennings (15) after Williams scored a touchdown against the Western Carolina Catamounts during the second half at Neyland Stadium
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

There are only so many ways this can be written, and anybody who reads B/R on a regular basis knows this space has been occupied with many variants of the same statement:

Tennessee must fix the passing game.

Some blame quarterback Joshua Dobbs; others blame passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni and the oft-injured receiving corps. Still others point to new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord as the culprit.

The blame is shared by all. But one thing is not debatable: The Vols have to find an alpha-dog receiver.

What better place to start than in the Outback Bowl?

At this point, you simply can't depend on rising senior Marquez North to be the dominant force that his physical prowess leads you to believe he can be. The 6'3", 229-pound target has one more season to salvage something of his massive expectations that followed him to Knoxville.

More likely is that sophomore leading receiver Josh Malone or one of the freshmen duo of Preston Williams and Jauan Jennings become the kind of player upon which Dobbs can depend and the kind of player who can carry an offense.

With the way the Vols have recruited receivers, they've got to be better than they have the past two years. Having all those guys healthy for bowl preparations have been refreshing, according to DeBord.

"It's different in practice when you can just keep going all the time," he told Callahan. "You don't have to slow down and walk through some things. It's been good that way, so it's been good to have guys healthy and we can keep going."

One player who's been healthy all year but didn't have the offensive role he should have was sophomore tight end Ethan Wolf. He actually had two fewer catches so far this season (21) than he did as a freshman, and though he wound up with a pair of scoring grabs, he had just 277 receiving yards.

The soft-handed, 6'6", 245-pound Wolf should be a playmaker in this offense, and Jones and DeBord must resolve to get him the football more. With Dobbs struggling to throw the ball downfield, why not dump it off to Wolf and let him become a Jason Witten-like weapon?

There's no reason he shouldn't play a bigger role moving forward.

Keep Kongbo, lure others

Credit: 247Sports

Things aren't looking as well for Tennessee on the recruiting trail this season as it has during the past two cycles, but one of the biggest remaining things UT needs to accomplish in the 2016 class is keeping a talent the Vols already have on the commitment list.

Top-ranked JUCO defensive end Jonathan Kongbo may be committed to the Vols, but he already has seen Oregon and Washington, two schools much closer to his Surrey, British Columbia, home. He also has visits lined up to Alabama and Florida State.

So, needless to say, the Vols have their work cut out to hang on to him.

With Curt Maggitt expected to leave for the NFL, the Vols are in need of securing another edge-rusher to take some of the pressure off Derek Barnett. They may already have that player on the roster in Kyle Phillips, but Kongbo is a player who can step right in and star.

Among other top targets who'd fill out a class struggling to squeak into the top 20 are safety Nigel Warrior, offensive lineman Landon Dickerson, receivers Mecole Hardman and Marquez Calloway and defensive tackle Derrick Brown, among others.

Remember this time last year, the Vols weren't even thought to be threats to land Phillips or star offensive tackle Drew Richmond, and Jones convinced both to sign with UT. So Tennessee could still close strong.

But without much immediate playing time to sell, that has become a tough proposition on the recruiting trail. Tennessee is loaded with young talent, and prospects seem to realize that. While it wouldn't be accurate to say this class is struggling, it's a bit on the thin side.

The Vols must land another four or five of their most coveted targets to wind up with the kind of class that can keep UT on an upward trajectory in the SEC. Kongbo is a centerpiece that the Vols can't afford to lose, either.

Rerecruit potential early entrees

Sep 26, 2015; Gainesville, FL, USA; Tennessee Volunteers linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (21) and defensive back Emmanuel Moseley (12) during the first quarter at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There's a very real possibility that Tennessee could lose three of its brightest stars to the NFL draft before they become seniors.

The junior defensive duo of cornerback Cameron Sutton and outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and third-year sophomore running back Alvin Kamara all submitted draft-entry paperwork to the NFL this week, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Patrick Brown.

Depending on their draft grades, all three could head to the pros early. That would be a crucial blow to a roster that appears built to compete for big things in 2016.

"Right now my focus is on the Outback Bowl and getting a ninth win for this team and this university," Sutton said.

Added Reeves-Maybin: "We're not really discussing it. It's not really a topic of discussion. We're just focused on each other, focused on having fun and focused on getting that win on the first."

So, even though Jones has plenty of work to do in the living rooms of high schoolers across the country, he also needs to spend some time convincing that trio they'd be better-served to spend another year in Knoxville.

If Sutton gets a first- or second-round grade, however, it would be difficult to try to get him to stay. As coveted as corners are in the league and as much money as they make, the Jonesboro, Georgia, junior could wind up securing a pretty fat paycheck.

But it's hard to envision Reeves-Maybin or Kamara getting a high grade just yet. Therefore, it may benefit both to come back to Tennessee, hone their skill set another year and try to improve their draft grades as well as their wallets.

One thing's for sure: It would certainly benefit the Vols if they returned.

All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports, unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.