A look at 10 key non-freshmen UT Vols football players

photo Justin Worley gets ready to pass during the the spring Orange and White game Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
photo Joshua Dobbs checks out the field before passing during the the spring Orange and White game Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

KNOXVILLE - When Tennessee opens preseason football practice at Haslam Field on Friday evening, most of the eyes will be on the 32 freshmen who caused such a stir when they joined the Volunteers' 2014 recruiting class.

That's understandable when a rebuilding program needs to upgrade its roster first and foremost.

Yet there are quite a few older players who will have just as much a say in Tennessee's fortunes for the 2014 season.

With the wait almost over and football now just a couple of days away, the Times Free Press looks at 10 non-freshmen to watch during Tennessee's preseason training camp in August.

• 1. QBs Justin Worley/Josh Dobbs: Or "Joshtin Dobbsley," if that rolls off the tongue more easily. Tennessee needs improved quarterback play this season after Worley, Dobbs and Nathan Peterman combined to throw for only 1,979 yards -- only the program's third season with less than 2,000 passing yards since 1991 -- with 12 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Heading into preseason practice, Worley has the edge on Dobbs, who's improved his arm strength and brings the running element to the position, but the senior will need to go out and win the job.

• 2. LT Dontavius Blair: Perhaps no player needed a better summer than Blair, the 6-foot-8, 313-pound junior college transfer who spent most of spring practice adjusting to big-time college football. Fifth-year senior Jacob Gilliam, a longtime walk-on awarded a scholarship this summer, took most of the first-team reps and left spring the starter at left tackle, though that might have been the coaching staff's ploy to motivate Blair and reward Gilliam. Blair appears to have responded, and the Vols would like to see him show it in August.

• 3. DE Corey Vereen: The Vols have finished last in the SEC in sacks in each of the past two seasons, and sophomore Vereen is one of their best natural pass-rushers. Vereen flashed his ability as a situational player in 2013, most notably against South Alabama and Georgia, but he'll likely have to be an every-down defensive end this season. He's drawn coaches' praise since enrolling last January, and now it's time for him to step up the production.

• 4. DT Trevarris Saulsberry: The 6-4, 297-pound fourth-year junior was beginning to push his way into a significant role at tackle early last season when he suffered a knee injury at Oregon. Saulsberry then missed all of spring coming off shoulder surgery. With opportunities abundant at tackle, Saulsberry is a wild card if he can stay healthy and rediscover his form from 2013.

• 5. WR Marquez North: The sophomore is one of Tennessee's most talented players, the evidence coming in the Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama games last season. Imposing physically at 6-4 and 221 pounds, North is an easy pick to be the Vols' breakout player this season. On a young and inexperienced offense, can North become the big-play threat the team lacked last season?

photo Trevarris Saulsberry
photo Tennessee wide receiver Pig Howard (2) tries to get around South Carolina safety Brison Williams (12).

• 6. DL Jordan Williams: The senior is the most experienced returning player on Tennessee's defensive line, and the Vols will need Williams to put it all together his final season. Naturally an end, he played more and more tackle as spring practice progressed, and that appears to be his new spot. There are a few veterans who need to make a jump for Tennessee this season, and Williams is one of them.

• 7. DB Justin Coleman: The Vols were scorched by passes over the middle of the field last season, but the coaching staff couldn't move Coleman to the nickel spot to shore up the position like they wanted. With more options in the secondary, Coleman moved there this spring. The Vols will see plenty of spread offenses this season and play plenty of five-defensive-back sets to counter it, which will make Coleman an important piece of the defense.

• 8. RB Marlin Lane: The second fiddle to Tauren Poole in 2011 and to Rajion Neal the past two seasons, Lane has been the forgotten man in Tennessee's backfield since five-star freshman Jalen Hurd showed up in January. Still, coach Butch Jones said at SEC media days that Lane, suspended at one point last year and often sidelined by minor injuries throughout his career, was a "great success story." Now it's up to Lane to translate his turnaround into production as a senior.

• 9. WR Pig Howard: For most of the spring, Howard looked as good as gone, but with his future at Tennessee very much in doubt, the slot receiver got back on the right track and stayed there. The Vols' top pass-catcher last season, Howard showed his potential against Georgia, but how far behind did he fall while absent from spring practice, when newcomers Von Pearson and Josh Malone got all the work they could handle? Receiver may be Tennessee's most talented position, and a focused Howard adds another option to the bunch.

• 10: P Matt Darr: With Michael Palardy now kicking and punting in the Oakland Raiders' training camp, Tennessee must find new specialists. Darr was a highly rated punter out of high school, but consistency has been his bugaboo. Now would be a good time for him to achieve it.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.