College Football Countdown | No. 68: Tennessee

College Football Countdown | No. 68: Tennessee
Tennessee punter Matt Darr (43) is one of a handful of Vols players who bridge the Lane Kiffin to Butch Jones era.

Offensive lineman Marques Pair gave his verbal commitment to Lane Kiffin on June 29, 2009, and enrolled roughly a year later under Derek Dooley, who stepped in after Kiffin’s one-and-done stint as Phil Fulmer’s replacement.

In August, Pair will begin his second season under Butch Jones, meaning the South Carolinian will have committed to one coach, signed and played for a second, spent one game under a third – interim coach Jim Chaney in the 2012 finale – and, in 2014, will cap his career for a fourth.

Consider Pair – and a few others, such as specialists Derrick Brodus and Matt Darr – the bridge that spans the entirety of Tennessee’s dark ages, a period that began in 2008, Fulmer’s final season; continued during Kiffin’s laughably short turn; extended through an hysterically ineffective three-season run under Derek Dooley; and – this is the hope – ended last November with a 27-14 win against Kentucky, capping the program’s fourth losing season in as many tries.

Pair and his fellow fifth-year seniors will soon be gone and forgotten, remembered if at all as the most underwhelming senior class in the history of the program. The Volunteers are 33-41 since the start of the 2008 season; in comparison, the program lost 41 games from 1993-2006. Thought another way, Vanderbilt – yes, Vanderbilt – has more wins in its last 20 games than Tennessee has in its last 36 games.

The fifth-year seniors remain, but their spots have already been filled: Tennessee has reeled in a mammoth influx of talent since Jones’ arrival, piecing together the makings of a newfound and newly made contender – brick by brick, Jones would say.

Fourteen members of February’s recruiting class enrolled early; that’s a hair more than 14% of the Volunteers’ pre-fall roster. Another 18 will join the program before August; come the opener, roughly a third of Jones’ crew will have signed papers in 2014.

Fifty current Volunteers have joined the program since Jones was hired on Dec. 7, 2012. Sixty-eight players are inside their fourth season of eligibility – true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, sophomores, redshirt sophomores or juniors. By the end of spring drills, 13 early enrollees occupied spots on the two-deep.

“It’s the reality of building a football program right now,” Jones told USA TODAY Sports in April. “We’re going to have to play some true freshmen on both sides of the ball, and as we know in the SEC, at those positions it’s unforgiving. But it’s also invigorating, being around an inordinate amount of youth and developing them.”.

Jones’ history suggests that UT won’t hit its stride in year one, but rather year two. That doesn’t bother me: I think Jones gets the Vols into the postseason by taking care of the weak opponents and notching three wins in SEC play. Jones will lead the way; UT’s going to follow.

In a nutshell: A learning season, all things considered, but consider: Tennessee was six turnovers and two late-game defensive stops from reaching the postseason. First came Florida, a game the Volunteers gave away amid a handful-plus of unforgivable turnovers – and only UT’s missteps allowed the Gators to score a season-high 31 points. Then came Georgia, a game UT handed away with an inability to corral Aaron Murray with ticks left in the fourth quarter – and then fumbled away in overtime. Then there was Vanderbilt, a game the Volunteers led until the final minute. Win one and you’re bowling; win two and we’re talking; win all three and the SEC looks at Tennessee’s 2014 chances in an entirely different light.

High point: A 23-21 win against then-No. 11 South Carolina on Oct. 19. Let Steve Spurrier know you can’t win the SEC East Division without beating UT.

Low point: The close losses, of course, but also a four-game stretch of pure misery: 45-10 to Alabama, 31-3 to Missouri, 55-23 to Auburn and 14-10 to Vanderbilt.

Tidbit: Tennessee was one of three programs to start three quarterbacks during the regular season, joining Utah State, Nevada, Air Force, Hawaii, Temple, West Virginia, Western Kentucky, Connecticut and Central Michigan. Two of these three starters were freshmen, with each making at least 23 pass attempts. Only three other SEC teams since 2007 have had two freshmen make that many attempts: 2012 Kentucky, 2011 Florida and 2008 LSU.

Tidbit (800 edition): Tennessee’s season-opening win against Austin Peay was the 800th victory in program history, pushing the Volunteers into the most exclusive group in college football. Tennessee, which enters 2014 with 804 victories, joins seven others in the 800-win club: Michigan (910), Texas (875), Notre Dame (874), Nebraska (865), Ohio State (849) and Alabama (838).

Tidbit (halftime edition): Jones enters 2014 with a 44-2 career record when leading at halftime. This included a 5-0 mark in his Tennessee debut. The two losses: Louisville on Oct. 26, 2012, and Eastern Michigan on Nov. 16, 2007.

Tidbit (Alabama edition): There was a time, boys and girls, that Tennessee owned Alabama. It wasn’t even that long ago, in fact: UT took seven in a row from 1995-2001, 10 of 12 from 1995-2006 and 11 of 14 from 1993-2006. It’s almost as if something happened in 2007 … As if someone arrived and changed the direction of the rivalry. Either way, it’s been ugly: Alabama has allowed a grand total of seven offensive touchdowns in taking seven in a row by the combined score of 249-75.

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Tidbit (SEC edition): If counting Missouri and Texas A&M’s marks as members of the Big 12, Tennessee (33-41) has the 13th-best overall record in the SEC since the start of the 2008 season. The list in order: Alabama (72-9), LSU (61-18), Florida (56-23), South Carolina (56-23), Georgia (54-26), Missouri (53-26), Auburn (50-28), Texas A&M (46-31), Arkansas (41-34), Mississippi State (40-36), Mississippi (39-37), Vanderbilt (35-41), Tennessee and Kentucky (29-44).

Worst four-year stretch in Tennessee’s history.

1. 2010-132. 2009-123. 2008-114. 1977-805. 1961-64.

Offense: Tennessee’s quarterback competition has already suffered one casualty: Riley Ferguson left the program in May, robbing UT of not only a projected starter in 2014 – Ferguson remained very much in the mix even after a sluggish spring – but perhaps the most gifted, potential-laden quarterback on the roster. But assets do remain at Jones’ disposal, including each of the three quarterbacks with at least one start a season ago: junior Justin Worley, the most tested of the bunch, and sophomores Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman. At the most basic level, Ferguson’s departure ensures that Worley at least starts the opener – seeing that neither Dobbs nor Peterman seems prepared for the rigors of SEC play. Worley gives Tennessee the highest degree of reliability; given the number of talented skill players on the roster, going with reliability is the Volunteers’ best choice.

Not that this necessarily inspires confidence: Worley is error-prone, if less so than the two sophomores, and struggles pushing the ball downfield – perhaps as a result of an unfamiliarity with UT’s scheme, so let’s see if that changes in 2014. Dobbs, meanwhile, flashed signs of increasing pass-game confidence during spring drills, likely putting him in position to step into the lineup should Worley struggle. I’d put Peterman in third; he seems several steps away from reclaiming the starting job. So even if Jones wants this to play out again in August – a wise move, I’d say – we have an idea how this will end: Worley will start the opener and remain the starter until he slips, when Dobbs will step in as the Volunteers’ new starter. Tennessee needs to sign two top-end quarterbacks in this winter’s recruiting class.

Two keys for these quarterbacks: one, get the offense moving at a faster clip, something high on coordinator Mike Bajakian’s to-do list, and two, get the youngsters involved. At least six or seven skill players from February’s class will factor heavily into UT’s offense, with one in line for significant touches in the running game. That’d be Jalen Hurd, a five-star prospect who will share carries with senior Marlin Lane (534 yards), a key cog in last year’s attack. Though still recovering from a shoulder injury, Hurd showed enough burst and vision during the spring to earn a substantial role the running game; Lane will lead, senior Devrin Young will lend a hand and another two incoming freshmen may contribute, but Hurd could be a difference-making factor. At 221 pounds, Hurd is an upperclassman in a freshman’s body. Another rookie to watch: Derrell Scott won’t hit the field until August, but a player with his speed could instantly carve out a change-of-pace role on the ground.

Another four of five newcomers will hold major spots in the passing game. One is JUCO transfer Von Pearson, who took advantage of Pig Howard’s (44 receptions for 388 yards) spring-drills absence to carve out a starting role in the slot. Come August, UT will be able to roll out a very nice one-two punch at the position: Pearson’s long and lanky, Howard squatter and more elusive, and the latter could flex into multiple roles within Bajakian’s offense – and this doesn’t even mention junior Johnathon Johnson (13 for 189), who’s going to see the field in this rotation. It’ll be the same cast on the outside, merely a year more experienced: Marquez North (38 for 496), Jason Croom (18 for 269) and Josh Smith (12 for 182) are now sophomores, a little wiser and battle-tested, and five-star freshman Josh Malone has already stated his case for immediate playing time. We’re not done yet: UT will also play true freshmen tight ends Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf, a pair that fit nicely into this scheme while sophomore A.J. Branisel and senior Brendan Downs dealt with injuries.

Just to sum things up … Tennessee’s starting offense – my best guess, at least – by class: senior quarterback, senior running back, junior wide receiver, two sophomore wide receivers, senior tight end, junior left tackle, junior left guard, junior center, junior right guard and true freshman right tackle. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. The second tier of the depth chart: sophomore quarterback, true freshman running back, junior wide receiver, sophomore wide receiver, freshman wide receiver, senior left tackle, freshman left guard, freshman center, sophomore right guard, senior right tackle. This is as young a two-deep as you’ll see in the SEC.

Defense: Six starters along Tennessee’s front seven must be replaced. This is new to Jones: “I’ve never been in a situation where you basically have to replace both your offensive and defensive lines,” he said in April. Help is on the way in the bodies of 18 summer additions, most on the defensive side of the ball and many – another four, in fact – set to contribute along the defensive line. But it’s an early enrollee who could mean the difference: JUCO transfer Owen Williams joined UT in January and quickly grabbed the top spot at defensive tackle, giving the Volunteers the sort of quick-impact player needed to offset the loss of Daniel McCullers and Daniel Hood. Though he needs to get into better shape to handle the every-down load of the SEC, Williams is a keeper along the interior.

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But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this line is in good shape – or even average shape, unfortunately. Sophomore Danny O’Brien, the projected starter alongside Williams, is totally unproven outside of a reserve role. If either starter falters, this line will be put into a dire position: UT’s reserves include freshman Dimarya Mixon, junior Allen Carson and incoming freshmen Michael Sawyers, Derek Barnett and Jashon Robertson – and that’s not a good situation. Senior Jordan Williams (18 tackles) will start at the traditional end spot while sophomore Corey Vereen occupies the Volunteers’ hybrid rush-end role, with each holding down the fort in last year’s rotation. But can Vereen beef up UT’s paltry pass rush, a concern for the better part of a decade? I’m not optimistic, though I have to acknowledge the talent. Look for true freshman Dewayne Hendrix to get a long look behind Jordan Williams; look for the same from rookie Joe Henderson behind Vereen. All told, this is not the sort of experienced line you’d want to take into battle against the SEC.

How the staff feels about the many newcomers to the second level could determine whether or not junior Curt Maggitt remains on the weak side, where he’s most comfortable, or transitions down to join Vereen at rush end. For now, Maggitt will need to stick at linebacker until Jones and coordinator John Jancek take a long look at recruits Dillon Bates, Gavin Bryant and Jakob Johnson, the latter an under-the-radar gem with substantial athletic potential. For at least the first portion of this season, look for Maggitt and strong side linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin to flank senior A.J. Johnson (106 tackles, 8.5 for loss), the lone returning starter along the front seven and an easy all-conference pick. But if Bates’ frame can hold up, I think UT’s best trio features the rookie, Reeves-Maybin and A.J. Johnson – because that would allow Jancek to use Maggitt in an edge-rush role. Either way, Maggitt does give UT some options in the pass rush.

All four starters and the majority of the two-deep returns in the secondary, where careful recruiting and impressive player development positions this grouping as the strength of the defense. Despite a familiar cast, look for significant changes to the rotation. One: UT might not start sophomore Devaun Swafford at strong safety, seeing that Brian Randolph (75 tackles, 4 interceptions) will be back for fall camp, but the Volunteers should feel more confident in their depth at the position. Two: Justin Coleman (46 tackles) will move from cornerback to nickel back, a move that makes enormous sense given the influx of talent on the outside and Coleman’s own struggles in a starring role. Three: Emmanuel Moseley, a true freshman, enrolled early and grabbed an unsteady hold of Coleman’s former spot at cornerback.

It’s safe to put Randolph, junior free safety LaDarrell McNeil (54 tackles) and sophomore cornerback Cam Sutton (39 tackles, 2 interceptions) into starting roles, with Sutton an up-and-coming defender to watch in the SEC. Though Moseley fared well during the spring, it’s too early to assume he’ll hold onto the job through August – seeing that another handful of talented recruits join the fold during the summer. Keep track of the names: Evan Berry, Rashaan Gaulden, Todd Kelly, Cortez McDowell, D’Andre Payne and Elliot Berry. Payne, another early enrollee, should see the field at nickel back. The rest will make a serious push for parts in the rotation, at worst adding depth and at best creating a new, freshmen-heavy top six. More so than any position on the roster, the future in the secondary is ridiculously bright – and when given the makeup of this roster as a whole, that’s really saying something.

Special teams: UT’s kicking game – at kicker, punter and kickoff specialist – starts anew without Michael Palardy, who handled all three duties as a senior. I imagine incoming freshman Aaron Medley will get a long look at kicker, though it’s very difficult to project how he’ll take to the college game. If not Medley, look for sophomore George Bullock or senior Derrick Brodus to take over the kicking game. At punter, UT could turn back to Darr, who has some experience. What the Volunteers really need is a boomer on kickoffs, an asset who would help address last year’s abysmal coverage teams. The return game grows stronger and stronger with each passing recruiting class.

Offensive line: Before crying over the new-look offensive front – all five starters must be replaced – focus on one crucial fact: UT’s offensive line was one of the most disappointing units in college football a year ago. So the decline isn’t as large as one might have imagined one year ago; it’s going to be tough, it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to task Jones, Bajakian and line coach Don Mahoney … But it’s not as bad as it looks on paper. What could make things really nice is a strong offseason from JUCO transfer Dontavius Blair, who arrived in January with immense billing but was unable to secure the starting job at left tackle. Instead, the staff left April leaning toward senior Jacob Gilliam.

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That won’t last, in my opinion: UT just needs to light a fire under the JUCO addition. Come August, the line should feature Blair and true freshman Coleman Thomas, another early enrollee, on the edges; junior Mack Crowder at center, where he played backup last fall; Kyler Kerbyson at right guard, moving the junior inside from right tackle; and junior Marcus Jackson, the only returning lineman with starting experience, at right guard. A solid debut from Blair would go a long way toward solidifying this reworked offensive line.

Again, it’s not the worst situation in the world. Thomas and Blair are question marks, true, but the interior of Jackson, Crowder and Kerbyson seems steady. Gilliam and Pair are fine as tackle reserves, though I’d worry how either would fare as starters in the SEC – not very well, is my guess. Sophomores Dylan Weisman and Austin Sanders got their feet wet last fall, so they should be serviceable backups along the interior. Three factors: one, UT needs to stay healthy; two, UT needs to stay patient; and three, UT needs to continue attacking this position on the trail. I envision this year’s line rounding into form with each passing week of the regular season.

Utah State: Tennessee can’t afford to lose the opener – and I hope the fan base isn’t looking past Utah State, which could be an absolute beast in the Mountain West Conference. But notching a win against the Aggies and Arkansas State would leave UT with some breathing room before taking on Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida, with the Sooners and Bulldogs on the road. Beat USU and ASU, top one of the next three games … And UT is going to the postseason. But the Volunteers still need to take three of four from Florida, Mississippi, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

In a nutshell: Butch Jones has spent the last 18 months up to his elbows in concrete and mortar, laying the foundation for Tennessee’s return to SEC competitiveness by adding layer upon layer of depth to each position on the Volunteers’ roster. It’s been impressive: Tennessee is loaded with young talent on both sides of the ball, in the trenches and out, and can now turn its focus to player development, the next stage in Jones’ rebuilding project. But there’s a key word there, and it deserves to be italicized: young. Tennessee is young, without a doubt, and dangerously so at several key positions – receiver, offensive line, defensive line, secondary and special teams. Only a diehard pessimist could ignore UT’s overall talent; it doesn’t take a pessimist to notice the Volunteers’ overall youth, however.

But talent will end this program’s run outside the postseason, hinging on six factors: one, whether Worley can be the steady, reliable presence this offense needs under center; two, how well the freshmen grasp the offense at the skill positions; three, if the reworked offensive line can stay healthy; four, if the front seven can hold up, particularly along the interior; five, how much of an impact the freshmen will have along the back seven; and six, whether or not UT can maintain some consistency in the kicking game. In general, it’s vital that Jones and his staff get the entire roster – a third of which is new to the program – on the same page before late August. I trust in Jones’ ability to get this done. He’s done nothing since arriving to alter my faith in the process.

This is a six-win team that will struggle to land more than seven wins, given the difficulty of the schedule. All told, UT will face either nine or 10 bowl teams, depending on how well Vanderbilt takes to Derek Mason. The Volunteers take on Oklahoma, Georgia and South Carolina on the road; Florida, Alabama and Missouri come to Knoxville. The basic point: Don’t expect any miracles. Do expect, however, a substantial degree of improvement, a stronger performance against all competition, a stiff sense of purpose and huge strides during the course of the season. It’s a young team, but the potential is off the charts.

Given what Tennessee has in hand and coming in next year’s class, all Jones needs to do is find a quarterback. The skill players are there. The line will only get better. The defense will improve as the youngsters gain a stronger comfort level in the system. The back seven, for example, is brimming with all-league potential. If UT can find its quarterback – and maybe it’s Dobbs – the Volunteers are one year away from competing for the SEC East Division. For 2014, the Volunteers should be happy with a six-win return to the postseason.

Dream season: Tennessee nets eight wins, losing to Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.

Nightmare season: The Volunteers fall back to 4-8, finishing a game ahead of Kentucky in the East.

Who’s No. 67? This team’s coach has led four of his five stops to at least one season of eight or more wins.