Missouri at Tennessee
Date: Nov. 22
Record: Tennessee finished 5-7 in 2013 including a 31-3 loss to Missouri in Columbia. The Tigers lead series 2-0.
Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
As I mentioned in my column about Florida and the supposed “hot seat” under Will Muschamp, I think college football programs have gotten way, way too impatient with coaches. I could point to several examples, but Exhibit A might well be in Knoxville — where the Tennessee Vols, one year removed from a 10-win season, fired veteran coach Phil Fulmer after the 2008 season in which the Volunteers went 5-7. Since then, under Lane Kiffin…and Derek Dooley…and Jim Chaney…this once proud program has fallen on hard times. Then before the 2013 season they brought in Butch Jones and he led the Vols to a record of, ironically, 5-7.
Jones seems to be taking the right steps to build a program, but Tennessee fans are going to need to be patient, because there’s still a lot of work to be done for Big Orange to get back to where it once was.
Tennessee is one of several Southeastern Conference teams going into fall camp with question marks at quarterback. Justin Worley started seven games last season before a thumb injury sent him to the bench, and if one had to guess he’s probably the most likely to end up on the field when UT starts against Utah State on Aug. 31. Last year he led the Vols to an upset of South Carolina (for which Mizzou fans should be eternally grateful) and played well against Georgia. Having played in two previous years including three starts as a frosh in ’11 when Tyler Bray went down, he has useful experience (albeit under a bunch of different coaches and systems.) The top backup is probably going to be Joshua Dobbs, who stepped in after Worley’s injury last year.
Running back will be an interesting battle through camp and perhaps the first few weeks of the season. Senior Marlin Lane is back, and has a career with more than 1,400 yards. He’s a big, tough runner but has had some discipline problems. At the other end of the spectrum is true freshman Jalen Hurd. A five-star recruit out of the Nashville area, he’s the total package and 18 years old or not, he’ll be hard to keep off the field.
The Vols offensive strength is as the receiver position, with several good players ready to catch passes regardless of who throws them. Marquez North was one of the best freshmen in the country last year, starting all 11 games. Pig Howard missed spring drills for “personal reasons” according to the coaching staff, but is back with the Vols after leading the team in receptions last year, he could be in the slot or be beaten out there by much taller Von Pearson, but chances are we’ll see him on the field plenty at one position or another, and reports out of the early days of fall practice indicate Howard came in with the right attitude and is turning heads with his effort and play. Jason Croom showed some stuff last year as well, but as is the case at running back there is a brand new baby freshman, Josh Malone, who may bull his way into the starting lineup. Malone was ranked by some as the No. 2 receiver in the nation last year. Tennessee has talent, size and depth at wideout. Another newbie, freshman Ethan Wolf, may not be in the same category as Malone and Hurd but is being picked by many to start at tight end.
There are reasons to think there could be a lot of improvement at Knoxville this year if you just talk skill positions. But SEC games are won on the line of scrimmage, and as Butch Jones reminded us before the opening of fall practice, UT is the only team in the nation to lose every starter on their offensive and defensive lines. Dontavius Blair probably gets the nod at LT, he played well in the stout Jayhawk Conference at Garden City Community College, and has the size at 6-foot-8-inches and 313 to play at this level. Freshman Coleman Thomas played center in high school but looks like the best option at RT for now, he was impressive in the spring. Marcus Jackson and Kyler Kerbyson have are both juniors but have no starts yet, they appear to be the guard tandem. Mack Crowder played quite a bit last year as a backup, and now evidently is the starting center.
The defensive line is a similar story, with young players full of potential but very little practical experience. Owen Williams is another Jayhawk Conference transfer, coming in from Butler Community College, and will take a tackle slot with junior Trevarris Saulsberry or Danny O’Brien at the other…for now. There are strong freshmen competing for both slots. Curt Maggitt has started 17 games (mostly at OLB) but sat out ’13 with injury problems, he’s a strong option at end, or may return to linebacker if the young’uns develop quickly enough. There’s a mishmash of other options, and it’s said this was a trouble spot in the spring. If Tennessee wants to compete for a bowl game, someone will have to take on this role.
At linebacker is the return of middle man A.J. Johnson, named by Phil Steele and others as a first team preseason All-American. With 34 starts, his experience is desperately needed on this very young team, and chances are if he stays healthy he could end up as the career tackling leader at Tennessee. There are several legacies at UT, and one could start right away as outside linebacker Dillon Bates, whose father starred in Knoxville and had a stellar NFL career, looks ready to step in immediately. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a sophomore whose experience is mostly on special teams, may take the other linebacker spot if Maggitt isn’t moved back.
Things start well at corner with an experienced hand in Cam Sutton, who returns after a very strong freshman campaign. The team could use leadership from senior Justin Coleman, but he struggled last year and may be consigned to a nickelback position in favor of — you guessed it — another freshman. Emmanuel Moseley wasn’t that highly recruited coming in, a 3-star in a class full of bigger names, but he was impressive in spring ball and may be the best option at the corner opposite Sutton. Moseley’s biggest problem may be getting jammed at the line, as he is listed at just 165 pounds. Brian Randolph’s a sure bet at safety, with experience (redshirt junior with 23 career starts) and a ton of talent. He was second on the team in tackles with 75 and is a ball-hawk in the back as well. The other safety position may go to another freshman and another legacy, Todd Kelly Jr. And speaking of legacies, twin brothers Elliott Berry and Evan Berry may contribute in the secondary. Their father, James was a great running back for UT and you probably know of their older brother Eric, a great safety with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Overall, there’s too much inexperience to predict a serious run from this Vols team. “If this freshman and that freshman and THAT freshman all play up to their potential,” isn’t the way the story of a winning season usually begins. Mostly what this program needs now is consistency. If Butch Davis has more than a cup of coffee with the Volunteers, he could be on the way to putting the program back on its feet. But that’s a year or two away. For now, even in front of 100,000-plus in Neyland Stadium, Missouri’s too experienced and strong and will put away the Vols for win number nine.
Darren Hellwege is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the United States Basketball Writers Association. Find him on Twitter: @KBIAHellwege