For a second consecutive preseason, Tennessee coach Butch Jones kept his quarterback competition open, and he waited a while again to name a starter after injuries forced him to use three different starters in 2013.
Senior Justin Worley performed better than current sophomores Josh Dobbs and Nathan Peterman last season, but he didn’t crack the top 15 in the SEC in passing efficiency. Tennessee did upset South Carolina and nearly beat Georgia before he got hurt, but he averaged 155 yards per game, completed only 56 percent of his passes and threw eight interceptions with 10 touchdown passes.
“Justin’s starting to play with much more confidence, more command of the line of scrimmage,” Jones said after the Vols’ first preseason scrimmage. “We still need more, but I see that overall development starting to happen.”
Rajion Neal was the workhorse of Tennessee’s offense in 2013 as he averaged nearly 18 carries per game, and unless former five-star recruit Jalen Hurd becomes the next SEC freshman tailback to have a big debut season, the Vols may rely on more of a committee approach.
In Marlin Lane, Hurd and Devrin Young, Tennessee has three very different runners. Lane showed flashes in the first three years of his career that he can be effective, and the diminutive Young may have helped himself into a role in Tennessee’s offense with his performance this month.
As they have been since he committed last March, though, most of the eyes will be on Hurd, the 6-foot-3, 227-pounder with a special blend of speed and strength.
“He’s tough, not only mentally, but physically,” running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. “He’s a highly motivated kid [who’s] focused. This is something he’s been working for for a long time. A lot of kids talk about it; some kids actually walk that life and live it. He’s a kid that’s so far been able to walk it.”
Tennessee entered last season with just three receivers who had caught a pass in a collegiate game, and though the group is still going to rely on sophomores and freshmen, it may be the team’s most talented position.
Said Worley: “We’ve got some studs out there.”
Budding star Marquez North is aiming for a breakout sophomore season. Sophomore Jason Croom, freshman Josh Malone and junior college transfer Von Pearson were all highly rated recruits. Josh Smith had a blazing start to camp, and freshman Vic Wharton caught on quickly. The Vols’ leader in catches in 2013, Pig Howard is back after missing the spring.
“It’s night and day,” receivers coach Zach Azzanni said, “from a year ago.”
Tennessee also upgraded at tight end with the additions of freshman Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm. The 6-5, 248-pound Wolf has impressed since arriving in January, while Helm and veterans Brendan Downs and Alex Ellis form a nice core at an important position that caught a paltry 15 passes for 97 yards last season.
Entering 2013, the Vols’ starting five offensive linemen had 118 career starts. The total starts are just six entering 2014, and left guard Marcus Jackson, a healthy redshirt last season, owns five of those from his freshman season in 2011.
Jackson, right guard Kyler Kerbyson and center Mack Crowder are fourth-year players who have waited their turns. The Vols moved high school center Coleman Thomas to right tackle because of his athletic ability. Former walk-on Jacob Gilliam and junior college transfer Dontavius Battle are battling for the starting spot at left tackle.
The group is certainly motivated, but how does the talent level match up to its predecessors?
“I think those guys have really embraced the challenge,” Peterman said. “It’s no secret what the rankings are out there of them, but they’ve done a great job of coming in to work every day and really taking it upon themselves and taking it personally.
“They’re a great group of guys, really hard-working, and I’m really excited to see what they’re going to do this year.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...