College Football Preview 2015-2016: 22. Tennessee Volunteers
2014-2015 Record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC)
Coach: Butch Jones, 3rd year (12-13 overall)
Key Losses: LB A.J. Johnson
Heisman Hopeful: QB Joshua Dobbs
Breakout Player: RB Alvin Kamara
Few teams and fan bases enter 2015 with as much as excitement around their program as Tennessee, and for good reason. For years after Phillip Fulmer, the team was downright dull, managing to win five to six games a year, enough for a bowl berth, but not much beyond that, while lacking any sort of big win under Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. But, under Butch Jones the program has appeared to make a breakthrough. After a slow start to 2014-2015, the Vols won four of their final five games, including a dominant TaxSlayer Bowl victory against Iowa, in a true coming out party for quarterback Joshua Dobbs and the offense. While 7-6 isn't always anything to get overwhelmingly excited about, Tennessee likely had the youngest football team in the nation, at least according to Jones, and they return 19 starters from that same squad, including nearly everyone at their skill positions. 19 starters back in the SEC East, which looks as wide open as can be right now? It is understandable to feel the excitement in Knoxville these days.
Backfield: For much of the past two years, Butch Jones had been cycling through the quarterbacks on his roster with little success. Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman and Joshua Dobbs all saw action and while all had their moments, they didn't solidify the spot. That is, until Dobbs' performances to end last season. Despite being just a sophomore last season, Dobbs threw for 1,206 yards with nine touchdowns with a 63 completion percentage in Tennessee's 4-1 finish. Now a year older, expect much bigger numbers for Dobbs, who has the arm to beat defenses deep but also possesses dangerous dual threat capabilities, running for 469 yards and eight touchdowns. An important step for Dobbs will be cutting down on interceptions, as he had six in the final five games. A full spring as starter with experienced targets will certainly help. The expectations for Tennessee are sky-high this season and if the team struggles, much of it will fall on Dobbs. But, he appears ready to handle criticism and he understands the game like a pro. Certainly helping Dobbs will be the amount of talent Tennessee possesses at running back. Sophomore Jalen Hurd was a pretty big time recruit for the Vols a year ago, and he produced. He ran for 899 yards and five scores, but also proved to have great hands for a back, catching 35 balls for 221 yards. Hurd has pretty good size for a back at 6'3", 230 pounds but he has surprisingly speed and quickness and he shows excellent burst when he sees holes. Dobbs will certainly lean on the sophomore to not only take some pressure off the passing game with his running ability but also makes plays with those great hands out of the backfield. Joining Hurd will be JUCO transfer Alvin Kamara. Kamara has had a very interesting route to Knoxville. A former five-star recruit by most recruiting services, Kamara choose Alabama but never got an opportunity there. Kamara ended up at Hutchinson Community College in Norcross, Georgia where he exploded and is considered the No. 2 junior college running back. He is an explosive athlete who can break the game open every time he touches the ball. Him and Hurd could certainly give Tennessee one of the nation's top 1-2 punches at running back. Also joining the two of them will be another transfer, Cincinnati defector Ralph David Abernathy IV. A key contributor to the Bearcats' offense the past couple of seasons, Abernathy's role diminished this past season. He was thrown to the bottom of the depth chart at running back and saw minimal action as a slot receiver after being moved there, forcing him to seek greener pastures. Much like Hurd, Abernathy possesses great hands and is very shifty, he will only add another dangerous element to this Tennessee offense.
Receivers: Dobbs will certainly be helped by his receivers, where nearly everyone who caught a ball last season makes their return to Knoxville, including senior Von Pearson, sophomore Josh Malone and senior Pig Howard. Howard led all Tennessee receivers last season in receptions and receiving yards, and the Volunteers will once more be leaning on him heavily. Contrary to what his nickname may suggest, Howard is speedy quick and very difficult to contain. He is undersized, but he will fight for tough balls in the air. Pearson, also a senior, was another major contributor a year ago. Pearson was a former worker at McDonald's before eventually ending up at Feather River College in Northern California. There his production opened the eyes of a number of schools, but he eventually ended up at Tennessee, and did not disappoint in his first year at campus. Pearson recorded 38 catches, 398 yards and five touchdowns throughout the terrific year. An imposing target at 6'3", Pearson can make truly acrobatic catches and has produced at every level. Also returning is sophomore Josh Malone, who could be in store for a breakout 2015. Malone had 23 receptions for 231 yards in his first season with Tennessee, solid numbers. But, he looked even better this spring, showcasing great reliable hands but also a new dose of explosiveness. Joining those three will be juniors Marquez North and Jason Croom, both who should be expected to step up. Even though he was hampered by injury throughout 2014, North still managed to put up strong numbers. He missed Tennessee's final two games altogether but he should be healthy and ready to go for the team's opener on September 5th against Bowling Green. North is not a great route runner and is prone to drops, but he has moments where he makes some truly amazing catches. When healthy, he might truly be the most exciting player on the team. Croom is a solid weapon through the air who should see plenty of snaps, even with the vast amount of talent above him on the depth chart. Croom has decent hands, but blocks very well for a receiver and works hard. Another playing that is returning from an injury riddled campaign a year ago is sophomore Josh Smith. Smith had ankle surgery in early November, and as a whole appeared in just three games last season. Even in the very limited snaps he saw, there was plenty to get excited about. He had 10 catches for 135 yards and had a very strong performance in the team's loss to Oklahoma. Smith is a shifty, smooth runner who may get lost when defensive backs are focusing on bigger, quicker and more physical offensive players. Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, who last coached with the Chicago Bears in 2012, will also hope true freshman Preston Williams can come in and make an impact. The steal from Lovejoy, Georgia has great size and superb athleticism. Sophomore tight end Ethan Wolf is yet another proven target, and is a beast in the red zone.
Offensive Line: Due to how young it was, and some injury issues, Tennessee's offensive line turned out to be a pretty major problem throughout 2014-2015. Though, with some more experience against some of the SEC's tough defenses, the unit should be much improved, especially with all five starters making their return to the Vols. The strength of the unit should be on the left side, where Tennessee is stocked with talent including senior Marcus Jackson. Jackson is a pretty athletic guard who will pave ways for Kamara, Hurd and Abernathy. Also returning is left tackle Kyler Kerbyson, another senior with plenty of experience. Kerbyson has solid size and a strong, sturdy base. Having an experienced left tackle like him will also provide major help to Dobbs. Yet another senior Mack Crowder, is entrenched at center. The SEC infamously has some great pass rushers at defensive tackle, but Crowder is up to the challenge. The possible issues for the Tennessee offensive line will certainly be on the right side, especially at right tackle. Junior Dontavious Blair has the tools to be a dominant tackle, but he is unproven and prone to mistakes. At 6'8", 295 pounds can push even some massive pass rushers to the ground like they are nothing. But, he doesn't recognize blitzes or defenses very well (at least not yet) and he will have to show he deserves the starting spot at right tackle. Sophomore Jason Robertson appears ready to anchor the right guard spot though. Robertson is gigantic and not very mobile but he is a hard worker with great hands. Although inexperienced, Robertson is a beast and should be fine. Tennessee has some pretty good depth throughout the interior of the O-Line, including sophomore Brett Kendrick and sophomore Coleman Thomas. Both have great size, and Thomas has been working hard to see more action this season. Jones and staff have done great recruiting at Tennessee, and he brings in major help at offensive line. Drew Richmond is a Memphis product who has a legitimate shot to see snaps at either tackle spot, because the Volunteers are not very deep there. Jack Jones is rated as a Top 10 tackle in the 2015 recruiting class by most, and is a gritty tackle who should also see some action. Venzell Boulware is another four-star find for Jones, who went south into Georgia to land him.
Defensive Line: Much like the rest of the team, Tennessee will be extremely young on their defensive line, as there is a very real shot that two true freshman could man the defensive tackle positions to begin the year. Though, while young, also like the rest of the team, there is a ton of talent and potential for stardom throughout the unit. Sophomore Derek Barnett is the perfect symbol for Tennessee's up-and-rising image. As a true freshman a year ago, the defensive end recorded 10 sacks and had 20.5 tackles for loss. Barnett is an explosive athlete, with a quick first step but also the motor and relentless attitude to stick with it. He will also be a help in run support, he has a great mind for the game. At the other defensive end spot, expect junior Corey Vereen to take over. Vereen was solid in 2014-2015, picking up 24 tackles, four of them for a loss. While he isn't the most natural pass rusher in the world, he is solid and will contribute. Though, most important is just the experience that he brings to the table. Being a mentor to the young guys and teaching them important things about playing in the brutal Southeastern Conference is indispensable. Up the middle, expect Kahlil McKenzie to see a starting role at one of the tackle slots. The son of Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, the true freshman has the talent to have a monster career in his time in Knoxville. Few freshman come in weighing in at 340 pounds but still possessing the motor and quickness that he has. He was rated as a five-star prospect by 24/7 Sports and seen just as high by nearly everyone else, for good reason. There is also a chance that a fellow true freshman takes over at the other tackle spot. Shy Tuttle has a great name and a great game. Also weighing in at well over 300 pounds, Tuttle will clog up lanes for opposing running backs but he also has sneaky athleticism. If Tuttle or McKenzie doesn't solidify those tackle positions, expect more experienced guys like senior Owen Williams and/or junior Danny O'Brien to get their opportunities. Neither possess the raw talent of the true freshman, but they understand defensive coordinator John Jancek's system (he is now in his third year), and there is certainly something to be said about that. Jones also brought in some prized defensive ends, like Kyle Phillips and Andrew Butcher. Phillips was a local Nashville product who Jones and staff managed to stave away from other elite SEC programs, while Butcher was a great gem from Georgia.
Linebackers: This is the only area where the Vols have a serious loss, as A.J. Johnson is gone. In Johnson's final three games on campus, he recorded 345 total tackles. Doing the quick math, that is an average of 115 tackles a season (he had 101 last season). Clearly, that crazy amount of production is not going to be easy to replace. The inside linebacker had incredible instincts and amazing ferocity. His loss is also going to leave a leadership void in the heart of Tennessee's defense, as he was such a huge part of the defense as a whole. Though, Tennessee still has plenty of talent in the unit and brings in plenty of reinforcements. Senior Curt Maggitt is just lucky to be playing football. An ACL tear and subsequent problems cost him nearly two years of football. Though, like a superhuman he came back from the injury and was fantastic. He had 48 tackles, 15 TFL and recorded 11 sacks, showing reckless abandon as a pass rushing outside 'backer, something pretty amazing considering the severity of his knee injury just months earlier. Maggitt is a fearless, attacking player and could certainly take over that leadership role from Johnson. He certainly is a model of perseverance and heart for sticking with it through injuries. On the other side, junior Jalen Reeves-Maybin was also wonderful throughout last season. Unlike Maggitt, who is definitely a pass rushing linebacker, Reeves-Maybin contributes more as a versatile 'backer who can help in run defense but also has advanced coverage skills. Reeves-Maybin picked up 101 tackles last season, along with 11 tackles for loss and two sacks. Even with that type of production, he is still underrated as my opinion, as he is rarely mentioned as one of the elite linebackers in the conference, although granted there is a lot of talent at that position in the SEC. The outside linebacker positions are clearly locked in and unless injury, are fantastic. Though, the question is obviously at middle linebacker, in replacing Johnson. Sophomore Jakob Johnson will compete with freshman Dillon Bates and others for the slot. Johnson is the most likely to win just because of the experience and he showed flashes last year, even with very little opportunities. Depth should be solid across the linebacker corps, with the returns of sophomore Cortez McDowell and more. McDowell picked up 19 tackles last season, and is likely to see even more snaps this year, at either outside linebacker spots. True freshman Quart'e Sapp was a nice pickup for the Volunteers. He might not see a lot of action this season, but he has the versatility to be the future for the position.
Secondary: Unlike most of the other units that do have some experience, the secondary is oozing with experience, at least at the starting positions. The clear cut top talent in the unit is going to be junior Cameron Sutton, who is viewed as not just one of the better cornerbacks in the conference, but possibly the nation. You can deserve that praise when you have three interceptions, along with an extremely impressive 13 pass deflections a season ago. But, the thing is, he will most likely be much better this season, as he hits his stride in his third year with Tennessee. Sutton has the athleticism and closing quickness to close on routes and either pick off passes or stop them from getting to their intended target. The other cornerback position is a slightly bigger question, but it should be in fine hands. Sophomore Emmanuel Moseley is going to lock down the slot, especially with his only serious candidate, junior Michael Williams being dismissed from the program. Moseley didn't see ton of action a year ago, but he still managed to have six pass deflections. He is also very quick and a tremendous athlete. Though, he also has solid versatility, as he will blitz and be let loose by DC John Jancek. Expect junior Justin Martin, a junior college transfer, to also look for opportunities, but the veteran will most likely be relegated to special teams duties for now. The safety spots are certainly in good hands, with senior Brian Randolph locking down free safety and LaDarrell McNeil handling strong safety. Randolph led all players in the secondary in tackles, picking up 88 along with two picks, one which he returned to the house. Randolph has impressive range and isn't afraid to lay down a huge hit on anyone passing into his air space. McNeil was also extremely productive last season, picking up 76 tackles himself. Sophomore Evan Berry, the brother of former Tennessee stud Eric Berry (who has been fantastic in the NFL with Kansas City), is ready to see more action this year, most likely at strong safety. Micah Abernathy was a great pickup for Jones and staff and the seventh-ranked cornerback in this year's recruiting class will also fight for playing time. He is the brother of Ralph David Abernathy, probably a major factor why he landed with Tennessee.
Special Teams: Tennessee has long had strong stability at the kicker position and they will have it once more, with Aaron Medley returning for his sophomore season after knocking in 20 of 26 field goals last season. True freshman Tommy Townsend is likely to take over at punter.