Tennessee has posted three consecutive 5-7 seasons and has lost at least seven games in five of the last six years. In the standings, few things have changed in Knoxville despite the hiring of a fourth coach in six years.
However, things could not be more different now that Butch Jones is in charge. Entering his second spring practice, Jones has already accomplished more than his predecessor. He has a win over a top-15 opponent, produced more rushing yards in a season than any Tennessee team since 2004, signed a top-10 recruiting class, moved Tennessee from adidas to Nike apparel and has retained his entire coaching staff.
He also has converted a culture of losing into one with lofty expectations and championship aspirations. Jones talks of “building our identity,” improving “football intelligence,” creating “team brotherhood” and using a “consistent approach each and every day.”
All of that coach speak is important and relevant, especially for a team with 41 losses in the last six years. But behind closed doors, fans can bet his goals for his second spring camp are more specific. Tennessee must find pass rushers, rebuild the offensive line, work in more than a dozen early enrollees and, most importantly, settle on a quarterback.
These objectives are more concrete than “taking pride in the fundamentals” and will go a long way in setting up the Vols for their first bowl game since 2010.
Tennessee Volunteers 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 7
Spring Game: April 12
Three Things to Watch in Tennessee's 2014 Spring Practice
Settle on a signal-caller
No one expects this battle to be over when spring camp ends, however, Jones and coordinator Mike Bajakian would feel a lot better about the future of their offense should they break camp with a clear(-er) pecking order under center. Justin Worley has the most experience. Joshua Dobbs has the most athletic ability. And Riley Ferguson, a redshirt freshman who didn’t play last year, might be the most gifted passer of the bunch. Nathan Peterman also is in the mix but appears like a distant fourth in the race for the starting job. Worley isn’t overly talented but has lots of snaps under his belt while Dobbs acquitted himself fairly well as just a true freshman a year ago with his ability to make plays with his legs. Ferguson is the wild card and many believe he might have the inside track on the starting job if he can prove to the coaches that he is ready to step into an SEC huddle. This battle should rage on into the fall but Jones and his staff would sleep better if they can establish at least the framework for a quarterback depth chart this spring.
Find answers in the trenches
All five offensive lineman are gone on offense and essentially the entire defensive line is gone as well. Restocking the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball is imperative for success in the SEC. There is a host of young players on defense who will step into bigger roles (Jordan Williams, Corey Vereen) and a few who will eventually return from injury (Jaylen Miller, Trevarris Saulsberry) along the defensive front. And there are probably more than a few fans who would like to see what linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin would look like flying off the edge in blitz packages. So finding pass rushers on defense (ideally) shouldn’t be as difficult as replacing multiple All-SEC blockers up front on offense. Very little starting experience returns at this position for the Vols with Mack Crowder — and his one start — the only player with any starting experience. Crowder, Marcus Jackson and Kyler Kerbyson should get first crack at earning spots but other names will need to develop quickly if Tennessee wants to improve the 102nd-ranked total offense in college football. Going the junior college route is a slippery slope and can be extremely volatile but can also pay off in a big way (SEE: Cordarrelle Patterson). So keep an eye on JUCO early enrollees Dontavius Blair (OL) and Owen Williams (DL). It won’t matter who is under center if Jones and Bajakian can’t stabilize the front line... on either side of the ball.
Find playmakers and work in the youth
With 14 early enrollees, Jones has what amounts to an entirely new roster heading into his second spring camp. And he has repeatedly talked about finding playmakers on both sides of the ball. With Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson returning to the linebacking corps, that shouldn’t be a huge undertaking on defense. However, on offense, Tennessee is in much worse shape and will likely turn to more than one freshman to help create big plays with Pig Howard, Drae Bowles and Brendan Downs not participating in spring camp. Five-star wideout Josh Malone and five-star athlete Jalen Hurd, be it at running back or elsewhere, have elite upside but need to get acclimated quickly to college life if they want to contribute in the fall. The same can be said about junior college wideout Von Pearson and early enrollee freshmen tight ends Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf. Jones and Bajakian have a lot of new toys to play with and figuring out how all of those pieces fit together is much easier in the spring than en route to Norman, Okla.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 5-7
Things are finally pointed in the right direction for Big Orange Nation. While the results on the field are yet to come, Jones has established a winning culture within the halls of the luxurious Anderson Training Center. He has overhauled his roster, improved team speed, gotten stronger and now has a young roster he can mold into a winner. There is a lot of work left to be done before the Vols are competing for SEC titles again — in particular, with a schedule that includes road trips to Oklahoma, Georgia, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Vanderbilt — but the overall trajectory of the program appears to be very positive for the first time in nearly a decade.