Tennessee is a program on the rise entering its third year under coach Butch Jones. The Volunteers improved from 5-7 in 2013 to 7-6 in 2014 and finished last season with a dominant win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. With 17 returning starters, Tennessee is poised for another jump in its win total and final ranking in 2015.
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Previewing Tennessee’s Offense for 2015
Joshua Dobbs’ rise from third on the depth chart to being the impetus of Tennessee’s 2014 bowl push and the projected star of the 2015 Vols has been, in a word, meteoric. The aerospace engineering major from suburban Atlanta has even been mentioned as having an outside shot at this season’s Heisman Trophy. Keeping Dobbs healthy will be of utmost importance; no other quarterback on the roster has taken a collegiate snap.
There are only three scholarship running backs on the roster, but Tennessee’s backfield duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara should be as exciting to watch as any. Hurd finished with a team-high 899 yards in 2014 but seems eager to share carries with Kamara, who began his career at Alabama. Kamara will complement the punishing style of Hurd with his maneuverability and speed.
The receiving corps should be a talented group of playmakers that is a coverage nightmare. The return of Marquez North from a shoulder injury that ended his 2014 season will be a huge boost, and anything less than North’s best season yet will be a disappointment. The Vols also bring back Pig Howard, who led the team with 618 yards last year.
A year of experience will help alleviate serious concerns about the offensive line, which last season gave up more yards due to sacks (305) than all but two FBS teams. One of the only positives about this group in 2014 was Jashon Robertson, who started all 13 games and was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman team.
Previewing Tennessee’s Defense for 2015
As hard as it is to believe, the defensive line that dominated Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl somehow got even better this offseason. Back are Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, who combined for 21 sacks last season. No position group enters this season with more potential.
Gone is A.J. Johnson, Tennessee’s middle linebacker and team leader. Finding a suitable replacement up the middle will be paramount to the Vols’ ability to stop the run this season. On the outside, there are far fewer question marks. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is coming off a breakout season as a sophomore and will likely lead the team in tackles once again.
The Vols’ defensive backfield, led by cornerback Cameron Sutton, should be one of the conference’s best. The reports on junior college transfer Justin Martin, an athletic corner, sound as if he’ll transition nicely into Division I football. Replacing nickel corner Justin Coleman with sophomore Rashaan Gaulden seems like a logical fit. At safety, Brian Randolph packs a punch and was an integral part of the defense last season. Opposite him, LaDarrell McNeil looked rejuvenated in 2014.
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Previewing Tennessee’s Specialists for 2015
Aaron Medley was automatic on field goals from within 40 yards last season. He has spent the offseason trying to develop long-kick accuracy, which will also help him on kickoff duty. Replacing punter Matt Darr and his penchant for pinning teams deep won’t be easy, but the incoming transfer of three-year Maryland starter Nathan Renfro, a Nashville-area native, will help. So will the addition of Tommy Townsend, a high school All-American. Sutton will likely handle punts with Evan Berry returning kicks for the second straight year.
Tennessee’s dismantling of Iowa in last year’s TaxSlayer Bowl guaranteed that excitement in Knoxville would reach a fever pitch by this season’s opener. With the suddenly high expectations for the Vols comes pressure for Butch Jones for the first time in his Tennessee career. There’s talent at the skill positions, but enough to win the SEC East? Jones probably has another year before fans grow restless, but if the Vols don’t win the division, they’ll need to at least come very close.