The 2013 football season is in the books for the Tennessee Volunteers. While there was disappointment in not making a bowl game, there were some definite positives. Young players like Cameron Sutton and Marquez North gave Volunteer fans hope for the future. Head Coach Butch Jones has been a solid leader for the program, which seems like it is headed towards brighter days after a miserable last half-decade.
Before his injury, Justin Worley seemed to be improving on a weekly basis. While he still wasn’t the type of QB who was going to throw for 300+ yards, he was beginning to hit receivers with better regularity and had become a better game manager. After Worley went down, true freshman Joshua Dobbs struggled to find the endzone in losses to Missouri, Auburn, and Vanderbilt.
Running Backs: B
Rajion Neal rushed for 1,124 yards and Marlin Lane added 534 more for the Vols. Going into the season, most people didn’t know what to expect from this unit. Given Neal’s previous injury concerns and Lane’s offseason suspension that left his status uncertain, I would say this unit exceeded what was expected of them.
Wide Receivers: C
After losing Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, Zach Rogers, and Michael Rivera from last season’s team, Tennessee had to break in a new group of receivers this season. Inexperience, inconsistent play, and drops plagued the Vols receiving corps for most of the season. However, talented freshman Marquez North gave UT fans a reason to be excited for the future.
Tight Ends: F
The tight end position for the Vols was seldom used in 2013. Brendan Downs and AJ Branisel were never really a factor in the offense and was rarely a target in the passing game. Whether it was play calling or a lack of confidence in the position, the tight ends failed to provide much of an option.
Offensive Line: B-
The offensive line was the perceived strength of the team heading into the season. With such lofty expectations for this unit, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed in their overall performance. On the positive side, the team rushed for over 2,400 yards. However, untimely penalties stalled several drives in critical moments throughout the season.
Defensive Line: C
The defensive line was the most experienced group on the defensive side of the ball this season. Suspensions and injuries pushed some of the younger guys like Cory Vereen, Danny O’Brien, and Trevarris Saulsberry into the rotation a little earlier than some people may have expected. Daniel McCullers was pegged as an All-SEC player in the preseason, but never played up to the hype. Corey Miller, Marlon Walls, and Jacquez Smith provided this unit with leadership throughout the season, even though nobody on the d-line really set the world on fire.
Linebackers : C+
The Linebacker corps had the least amount of depth this season. A.J. Johnson, Brent Brewer, and Dontavis Sapp were forced to play every possible snap they could due to a depleted unit. Curt Maggitt missed this season while recovering from a torn ACL, really hampering the Vols defense. Johnson continued his stellar play and was named to the All-SEC first team team, while Sapp was possibly the MVP of the defense.
Defensive Backs: C
The defense found a star in freshman CB Cameron Sutton. The freshman All-American helped a previously poor secondary with his big play ability. The return of Safety Brian Randolph was huge for the Volunteer defense, as he provided stability and leadership. Overall, this unit was still undermanned and not nearly as fast as they need to be. Crucial assignment errors plagued them late in close games.
Special Teams: C-
Through the halfway point in the season, Special Teams was the bright spot of the team. However, a very poor performance against Auburn really hurt. Michael Palardy might have been the MVP of the team, but he was clearly not feeling his best late in the season. Budding star Jalen Reeves-Maybin peaked many Vol fans interest as a potential big time player in the future.
Butch Jones and his staff pretty much lived up to what most people expected this season. Hamstrung by a lack of talent and SEC caliber speed, the staff worked well with the cards they were dealt. Some may criticize their handling of the QBs, but they did what they felt was best for the program. There will always be fans who question play calling…some right and some wrong…but these coaches know their personnel better than anybody else. Next season will be more telling of how this staff will pan out, as they will have the opportunity to develop the players and establish an identity.
Going into the season, I had predicted a 7-5 finish. A 6-6 record and a bowl game was the goal, and the Vols fell just short of that with a 5-7 record. The extra practice time would have really benefited this program going forward, but they will now have to wait until the spring. The offseason will be huge, especially for the younger players on the roster.