Football season truly never ends on good ole Rocky Top. This off-season has been particularly eventful with the coaching search, new staff being installed, and all that goes along with those sort of things. Now that signing day is behind us, and the staffing is complete (albeit a late addition, in the form of new running backs coach Robert Gillespie) it’s time to look ahead to spring practice, which will ultimately lead to the Orange and White game.
The Volunteers have a lot of turnover on offense this year, losing six offensive starters.
The quarterback battle will certainly receive the most attention. Junior Justin Worley has been considered the player to beat by many, but we think redshirt freshmen Nathan Peterman will emerge as the opening day starter. True freshmen Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs will both be in the mix as well. Worley has the only on-field experience of the group, but isn’t considered the best fit for new head coach Butch Jones’ offensive philosophy. Peterman, Ferguson and Dobbs are all considered good fits in Jones’ offense. Peterman was previously recruited by Butch Jones, when Jones was at Cincinnati. Jones has said there will be no preconceived favorites for the job, and all the players will be on a level playing field, which bodes well for the group of freshmen.
The wide receiver position battle probably won’t be publicized as much, but should be every bit as exciting. Junior Vincent Dallas and sophomore Alton “Pig” Howard are the top two returning receivers for the Vols. Dallas recorded nine catches for 149 yards, while Pig Howard caught 13 balls for only 54 yards.
The Volunteers had a very good recruiting class at wide receiver, led by 4-star recruit Marquez North. The 6’4″ North Carolina native was considered the cornerstone of Butch Jones’ first recruiting class. North is expected to continue the long lived tradition of tall, dominant wide receivers at the University of Tennessee.
The Vols also added three 3-star wide receivers. Paul Harris, also 6’4″, was an early enrollee for the spring semester. The Maryland native compares in body type to former Vol receiver Justin Hunter. Harris is raw, but has the potential to be a major contributor for the Vols in the future.
Ryan Jenkins, a 5’10” receiver out of Marietta, GA, is the type of receiver Butch Jones has appeared to favor during his coaching career. Jenkins reminds us of an Antonio Brown type (current Pittsburgh Steeler and former Butch Jones WR at CMU), and should fit into Jones’ and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian’s offense well. Jenkins is quick, tough and makes plays after the catches. He’s great in the intermediate game. It’s doubtful that he’ll see the field much as a freshmen, especially with Pig Howard being the same type of player, and having more experience.
The final Vol wide receiver in the 2013 class is Knoxville native Josh Smith. The 6’1″ receiver is one of our personal favorites in the 2013 class. Smith won’t be flashy, or the fastest guy on the field, but he could end up having the best hands. He was also recruited by Butch Jones at Cincinnati, so most of the staff will be familiar with him. Smith is a hard worker, and should contribute early for the Volunteers.
Tennessee also returns redshirt junior wide receiver Jacob Carter. The Nashville native caught eight passes for 126 yards and a touchdown last season.
One more receiver to watch out for will be Drae Bowles, who redshirted last season. Bowles, who is 6’1″, was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school. The Tennessee native will be given a chance to win a spot in the wide receiver rotation for the Vols.
In addition to losing the bulk of their wide receiver production, the Vols also lost most of their production from the tight end position. Senior Mychal Rivera accounted for nearly all of the offensive stats recorded by a tight end last year. Rivera accounted for 562 yards on 36 receptions. The only tight end returning that recorded any offensive stats for the Vols is junior Brendan Downs, who had three catches for 39 yards.
The Volunteers have several promising young tight end prospects. Redshirt freshmen Jason Croom was a 4-star wide receiver recruit. The 6’5″, 232 lb Georgia native will be converted to a tight end. Croom could present plenty of match-up problems for opposing teams in the SEC. He has the quickness to line up at wide receiver, but the size to block defensive ends. Croom’s progress in spring practice will be one of the more intriguing story-lines to watch.
A pair of 3-star recruits will also be thrown in the mix. Junior college transfer Woody Quinn has the prototypical size (6’5″, 256 lbs) you look for in a tight end, but has little experience at the position. Quinn has a high ceiling, but may not contribute immediately until he gets comfortable on the field.
The other 3-star tight end is 6’4″ AJ Branisel, who was originally committed to play for Cincinnati under Butch Jones. Branisel flipped his commitment after Jones took the Tennessee job. Branisel needs to improve in the blocking game, but is a solid pass catcher and will give the Vols some depth that they’ve lacked at tight end.
Even though the Volunteers lost the bulk of their pass catchers from last season they have a deep group of talented contributors. There’s a lot of inexperience with this group, but a lot of potential.
We’ll have more on spring practice and updates on position battles in the coming weeks.
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