SEC: Jalen Hurd

Butch Jones: Vols have 'momentum'

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
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The Tennessee Volunteers are coming off its fourth straight losing season and faces what could be another difficult season in 2014, especially with a killer schedule.

But spend a few minutes with second-year coach Butch Jones, survey the Vols’ recruiting and talk to a few of their fans, and it’s anything but gloom and doom on Rocky Top.

“We have great momentum,” Jones explained. “We have the greatest resource of all – people. You couple people with the vision of what’s going on at Tennessee, the new dormitory, the new football complex, but I also think it’s what Tennessee can be and what it will be.

“Everything in life is about timing, and this is the right place at the right time.”

In other words, Jones sees pretty clearly through all the dark clouds that have engulfed Tennessee’s program ever since Phillip Fulmer was forced out at the end of the 2008 season.

The Vols pulled in the No. 5-ranked recruiting class nationally last year and are currently ranked No. 10 by ESPN in the 2015 class.

“Our players are compelled, and they’ve been our greatest ambassadors,” Jones said of the Vols’ recruiting success.

The good news for Tennessee is that the Vols are starting to reel in four- and five-star prospects with regularity the way they did back in the 1990s when Fulmer had the program rolling. The bad (or scary) news is that a lot of those freshmen are going to have to play key roles this season.

Tennessee is the only team in the country that doesn’t return a single starter on the offensive or defensive line, although Curt Maggitt is moving to defensive end after missing last season with an injury and starting as an outside linebacker two years ago.

“We’re going through the realities of building a football program,” Jones said. “Sometimes, I think of us as an expansion team. But our players have done a great job. They’ve really embraced everything. Our older players are really mentoring the younger players. The whole key for us is how we manage the natural adversities that a football season brings about.”

Jones said first-year players will be a staple in the defensive line rotation this season, and the offensive line will be equally inexperienced.

“But we have great competition heading into camp,” he said. “Last year at this time, we had zero players who could squat 600 pounds, and we were a veteran group. This year, we have nine.”

The Vols were able to get all 32 signees in this class in school, which includes the ones they counted back as part of the 2013 class. Several of those players are expected to play key roles, namely running back Jalen Hurd.

Jones said the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Hurd doesn’t look like a true freshman, nor has he performed like one since enrolling early back in January.

“He’s got the elusiveness of a smaller back. He can make you miss and get the tough yards like a big back and has good speed,” Jones said. “For his size, he’s able to do some things I haven’t seen from a back in a while.

“He’s one of several young guys we’re going to be leaning on this year. It’s never ideal when you’re playing so many of those guys, especially when their first road trip is going to be Oklahoma. But that’s just where we are right now.”

It’s not where the Vols expect to stay, though.
We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at Tennessee.

Most important game: Nov. 22 vs. Missouri

Key players: By this point in the season, we'll know plenty about Tennessee's offense. Whether the quarterback situation is ironed out once Missouri gets into town is a mystery at this point, but all signs point to Justin Worley as being the starter heading into the season. His play will be crucial to Tennessee's success. Inconsistency at quarterback doomed this offense last year, but Worley showed some promise. Eyes also will be on sophomore Marquez North, who led Tennessee with 496 receiving yards last season. That number will have to increase if this offense is going to get off the ground, but North could have a big day against a very inexperienced Missouri secondary. The hope in Knoxville is that North gets some help from true freshman Josh Malone and junior college transfer Von Pearson. Both were on campus during the spring and both have the big-play ability to give Worley a chance to make some big plays against this secondary. Tennessee lost all five starters along its offensive line, but junior Marcus Jackson is back after redshirting last year. Behind him, you have running backs Marlin Lane and Jalen Hurd, who will have to be active against a solid Missouri defensive line. Hurd could be the one to watch, as he has the skill to be a star in this league. On defense, linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson will be key. Johnson will have to direct things and contain Mizzou's explosive running game, while Maggitt will have to generate consistent pressure on quarterback Maty Mauk, considering the Vols also are rebuilding their entire defensive line. Safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton will have to be on their toes against Mauk, who isn't afraid to sling the ball around.

Why it matters: With so many questions surrounding this team, we don't know if the Vols are a bowl team right now. The month of September has zero gimmies for Butch Jones' group, and October features Florida, Ole Miss and Alabama. With trips to Oklahoma and Georgia on the September slate, Tennessee needs to go at least 2-2 before October arrives, where Tennessee has to get at least one win (Chattanooga). The Florida game (Oct. 4) is important -- and the Vols could certainly win it -- but the season isn't over if Tennessee loses it. That might not be the case against Mizzou. Kentucky and Vanderbilt are on the schedule in November, so those wins are important, too. But dropping the Missouri game could end all hope for the postseason. If Tennessee wants to make it back to a bowl game for the first time since 2010, it has to beat Missouri. Two years ago, this game took four overtimes to complete and pretty much cost the Vols a trip to the postseason. Tennessee can't afford to let history repeat itself.
For the most part, surprises usually annoy me, but every once in a while, we find some things we like to call "pleasant surprises" that can actually generate smiles and or applause. For example, Auburn and Missouri were pleasant surprises in the SEC last season. The spider that fell from the ceiling and onto my shoulder the other day was not.

Follow me?

Well, resident college football expert Phil Steele has come up with his list of college football's 10 surprise teams Insider for the 2014 season. At the top of his list is Georgia, and Ole Miss and LSU also made the cut.

All three are excellent choices. Georgia has the offense to score close to 100 each week, but its defense has the ability to surrender that as well. Imagine if the defense caught up to a third of what the offense could do.

Ole Miss has playmakers on both sides of the ball, and I have the Rebels pegged as a dark horse to take the West this year. Can quarterback Bo Wallace finally put a consistent season together?

Then there's LSU, which has a load of talent sprinkled about, but we don't know who the quarterback is or who will catch the majority of passes at receiver. Also, is that defensive line going to step up this fall and generate a more intimidating pass rush?

So which other SEC teams could surprise us this fall? I figured I'd take a stab at it:

FLORIDA

If the Gators' offense can get it together under new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, this will be a dangerous team when it comes to the East and the SEC as a whole. Florida already has the defense -- arguably the most talented in the SEC East -- but just has to find a pulse on offense. Will Muschamp thinks he'll have more than just a pulse with quarterback Jeff Driskel running a more comfortable spread attack.
  • Why Florida will surprise: Driskel will be a much more threatening quarterback using his legs more in the zone-read. It will open up the running game and will help take a lot of pressure off of what could be a more athletic Gators defense.
  • Why Florida won't: Have you seen that schedule? The Gators go to Alabama and Tennessee before home games against LSU and South Carolina and the annual trip to Jacksonville to play Georgia. Florida gets South Carolina at home, too, but has to travel to Florida State to end the season.
MISSOURI

Wait, the team that won 12 games and the East is in this category? Well, the Tigers aren't getting much love heading into the fall because of some key losses from last year's team. But some of those key spots are getting more than qualified replacements. The confident and experienced Maty Mauk takes over for James Franklin at quarterback, while potential stars Markus Golden and Shane Ray take over for Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Also, watch out for running back Russell Hansbrough.
  • Why Missouri will surprise: Mauk won't have any jitters taking over after starting for the month (and losing just one game) when Franklin was hurt last year. That defensive line could be really fun to watch with good experience and quality ability to keep up the harassment it displayed last season.
  • Why Missouri won't: Mauk is good, but who is he going to throw to? None of Mizzou's returning pass-catchers made more than 26 receptions last year. The loss of Dorial Green-Beckham won't be easy to get over. Two starters are gone at linebacker and the secondary is incredibly inexperienced.
MISSISSIPPI STATE

This team returns 18 starters, including a potential dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Dak Prescott. The defense is experienced, but vastly underrated. The attitude is different and the confidence is soaring in Starkville. This is the most talented team Dan Mullen has had during his tenure with the Bulldogs, and seven wins would be a considered a disappointment.
  • Why Mississippi State will surprise: Prescott did so much in so little time last season and is the ideal quarterback for this offense. Also, his top-five pass catchers from last year are back. The schedule also isn't too daunting, especially with Auburn and Texas A&M at home.
  • Why Mississippi State won't: With the way the schedule sets up, the Bulldogs could have seven wins by mid-November. We've seen this before. In 2012, Mississippi State started 7-0 before dropping three straight and five of its last six. For the most part, the better teams have had their way with the Bulldogs.
TENNESSEE

This team has to completely rebuild its offensive line and defensive line, but there's no doubt that this team has talent at all around and could be sneaky good. The quarterback position has to be figured out, but with receivers such as Marquez North and Josh Malone on the field, any quarterback should be happy.
  • Why Tennessee will surprise: The Vols have playmakers at receiver, running back, linebacker and in the secondary. While there are questions up front on both sides, Tennessee has a pretty good supporting cast around it. Running back Jalen Hurd could be a major player for the Vols.
  • Why Tennessee won't: Quarterback is a major issue, and that's before you look at a line with five new starters. The defensive line lost six seniors and four starters. There are no gimmes on the schedule in September, and road trips to Georgia, Oklahoma, Ole Miss and South Carolina won't help.
Today, we continue our look at each position in the SEC by checking out quite the loaded group: Running backs.

SEC games are won and lost in the trenches, but the league has always poked its chest out from the running back position.

This season is no different, as the league is once again loaded here:

Alabama's TJ Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJunior T.J. Yeldon leads an Alabama running back corps that might be the best in the nation.
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide might have the nation’s best backfield. T.J. Yeldon enters the 2014 season with 2,343 career rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, while sophomore Derrick Henry, who might be the most talented back on the roster, excels as a bruiser and a cruiser with his pounding frame and elite speed. Junior Kenyan Drake provides a nice change-of-pace with his elusiveness, and the Tide will grind away with mammoth Jalston Fowler.

2. Georgia: When healthy, Todd Gurley is arguably the country’s best running back. He has that rare combination of size, speed and explosion that make him a terror for defenses. Even with nagging injuries, Gurley has 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Fellow junior Keith Marshall proved to be a great complement to Gurley with his explosiveness, but is coming off a devastating knee injury. Expect freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to get chances, along with youngsters Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman.

3. South Carolina: Junior Mike Davis has the skill to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. He can pound away with his strength and break the big run. He has nearly 1,500 career yards and the talent to make this his last year in college. There isn’t a lot of drop off with Brandon Wilds, either. Injuries have been an issue for him, but when he’s on the field, he usually outworks opponents. He’s also a good blocker and a receiving threat. Shon Carson has shown flashes, but has to put it all together. Keep an eye on David Williams, who could be the back of the future.

4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t do a lot of good things on offense last season, but Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams presented a formidable duo for opposing defenses. Together, they rushed for 1,985 yards and eight touchdowns. The second number has to increase this season, but if the line improves, these two should produce plenty of headaches this fall. Korliss Marshall only played in eight games last year, but people around the program think he’s the biggest home run threat at running back.

5. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is gone, but the backfield should be fine by committee. Tra Carson has what it takes to be a bellcow back with his blend of power, explosion and elusiveness. The Aggies could have a solid one-two-punch with Carson and Trey Williams, who might be the most gifted of A&M’s backs. Brandon Williams and James White should get carries too. White looks like the back of the future and is an every-down pounder, while Brandon Williams might be the fastest of the bunch.

6. Auburn: What Tre Mason did last year was nothing short of impressive, and the system he ran will only benefit the guys after him. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for more than 600 yards last season and each had six touchdowns. Artis-Payne could carry the load, while Grant is used as more of the speed back. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could get some carries, but keep an eye on true freshman Racean Thomas, who could really challenge Artis-Payne.

7. LSU: Jeremy Hill might be gone, but Terrence Magee could start for a handful of SEC squads. He rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season and stole some carries from Hill here and there throughout the season. He isn’t easy to take down and is more elusive than Hill was. But he’ll certainly be pushed by freshman Leonard Fournette, who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. Senior Kenny Hilliard returns with more than 1,000 career rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

8. Florida: This might the Gators’ deepest position. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor started to get more comfortable last season and is faster and more agile right now. He’s trying to be more of an every-down back and carry the load, but will get plenty of help from Mack Brown and Matt Jones. Brown has really turned things around in the last year, while Jones should be 100 percent after knee surgery this spring. The wild card could be freshman Brandon Powell, who could be a real threat in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRussell Hansbrough could be on the verge of a breakout season for Missouri.
9. Missouri: The Tigers might have a gem in junior Russell Hansbrough. He isn’t the biggest back, but he blends power and speed and churned out 6.0 yards per carry last season. Hansbrough is primed for a breakout year and will have a good complement in Marcus Murphy, who is an extremely explosive player at running back and in the return game. Redshirt sophomore Morgan Steward, who is bigger than Mizzou’s typical backs, but might be the fastest of the bunch.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels have a solid duo to work with in juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Both registered more than 500 yards last season and were neck-and-neck for most of the spring. Expect an attack by committee where Walton has more of the flash and Mathers uses more power. Jordan Wilkins is a really physical back who is more of a grinder than the other two. There isn’t a workhorse, but all these guys fit what Hugh Freeze wants to do on offense.

11. Mississippi State: Another team with a potentially deadly duo headlining its backfield. Josh Robinson was third on the team last season with 459 yards, but averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He packs a punch and can break the big plays. Nick Griffin had a great spring, but has dealt with multiple ACL injuries. Having him healthy for the first time is huge. There’s excitement about Brandon Holloway moving to running back, and youngsters Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams could get chances this fall.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats have plenty of questions on offense, but there’s hope at running back. Sophomore Jojo Kemp led the team in rushing last season (482), but will battle Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, who might be able to do a little more with his athleticism and speed. Josh Clemons is back after sitting out two seasons with injuries, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams will give Kentucky good depth.

13. Tennessee: Senior Marlin Lane has a ton of experience and will relied on even more with Rajion Neal gone, but inconsistency has always been something that has hurt Lane. He’s yet to hit 700 yards in a season, but he’s shown flashes his entire career. Freshman Jalen Hurd, who has great size and athleticism, is being viewed as the real deal in Knoxville and will have very opportunity to grab a good amount of carries this fall after enrolling early. Him taking the starting job wouldn't surprise anyone.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason was pleased with where his running backs were coming out of the spring. Junior Brian Kimbrow, who has a ton of wiggle and speed, is stronger, which should help him between the tackles. The Commodores could have a future star in redshirt freshman Ralph Webb and veteran Jerron Seymour, who led Vandy with 716 rushing yards, is back, giving Vandy some good depth to start the season.
Spring football, for obvious reasons, is a chance to start fresh. But it’s all a matter of degrees. Auburn, coming off a trip to the BCS National Championship Game, doesn’t need a full-blow makeover with Nick Marshall back under center and seven other returning starters on offense. South Carolina, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, which bring back a healthy amount of experience, are all in similar boats, building upon last year’s success rather than rebuilding entirely.

And then there’s Tennessee.

[+] EnlargeJalen Hurd
AP Photo/Wade PayneRB Jalen Hurd is one of many new faces making an impact for the Vols, and there are more on the way.
Common sense dictates that every year roughly 25 percent of any given roster turns over as the senior class departs and a new freshman class steps in. Throw in a few underclassmen leaving early for the draft and that number can swell to anywhere from 30-35 percent. But Butch Jones isn’t dealing with a normal situation at Tennessee. Since taking over the Vols late in 2012, he has hit the recruiting trail hard in an effort to rework the roster in a hurry. His first full signing class in February featured a jaw-dropping 35 prospects, 14 of which made their way to campus early to participate in spring practice.

“Fifty percent of our players were going through spring practice for the first time,” Jones said on a conference call earlier this month. “We’re still dealing with the realities of building a football program in an elite conference, but I thought out players were very focused. As we continue to move forward, this summer is going to be very big for our overall development in all phases.

“I thought our program benefited from 14 newcomers. I thought they brought a whole other level of energy and competition and that competitive culture that we speak about each and every day. I thought we took tremendous strides improving as a football team and as a football program.”

Tennessee will need to make improvements in leaps and bounds if it wants to stay competitive in the SEC. While the rest of the East lost its fair share of starters (Aaron Murray and Jadeveon Clowney, among others), the Vols were hit where it hurts most as a grand total of zero starters return on either the offensive or defensive lines. Without a true incumbent at quarterback, look for a real youth movement in Knoxville this season, maybe more so than we saw in Year 1 under Jones.

Jones called spring practice “extremely productive” and said that “great progress” was made in terms of developing an identity and style of play. But what had him “very excited” were all the new faces he saw for the 14 practices and spring game.

Jalen Hurd, the No. 8 running back in the ESPN 300, and wide receiver Josh Malone, a fellow four-star prospect who was No. 43 overall in the ESPN 300, made a positive impression on the staff since arriving on campus, and the two were the first to score touchdowns in Tennessee's spring game. Defensive back Emmanuel Moseley, a candidate to start at cornerback, and linebacker Jakob Johnson, whom Jones called an "alpha male," also stood out. Junior college wideout LaVon Pearson, who is 6-foot-3 and was the No. 2 player at his position in ESPN’s Junior College 50, is expected to make a contribution, along with junior college transfer Dontavius Blair, an offensive tackle.

All told, six of the 14 early enrollees were offensive or defensive linemen.

“I thought our older players did a great job of teaching the 14 newcomers our culture, our standard of excellence, our expectations, our mindset, really what it means to play here,” Jones said. “I think it was a big, not a wake-up call, but I think it was great that for the spring game we had almost 69,000 people, and we needed that to happen because we needed to see those youngsters in that type of environment and see how they could compete individually.”

Moving ahead, Tennessee should benefit substantially from a new NCAA rule that allows for more contact between players and coaches during these summer. As Jones said, “the rule change is coming at the right time for us.”

It will be a balancing act, however, because whatever time coaches spend with players will be deducted from the strength and conditioning room. Not only does Jones want his guys getting physical reps, he wants “mental reps in a classroom setting.”

“Being a player-led football team is critical,” he said. “The leadership, and everything that goes along with it, the team chemistry, that’s necessary to win. To be able to have two hours in a classroom setting will prove to be extremely beneficial to us because of the influx of newcomers that we have in our program.”

Don’t look now, but even more rookies are on the way. Safety Todd Kelly Jr. and linebacker Dillon Bates, both top-five prospects at their respective positions, are among the remaining signees to get to school this summer.

“Most of our signees were early enrollees,” Jones said. “Now we get the infusion of the depth and competition with the 18 newcomers coming in. I believe, 16 are on the defensive side of the ball, so we should be a different defensive football team.”
Spring practice has concluded for all 14 SEC schools, meaning the start of preseason practice can't be too far away.

But before we flip the page to summer workouts and the rest of the newcomers who'll be arriving in the coming months, let's take a look at those new faces on campus who made the biggest splashes this spring -- junior college transfers and early enrollee true freshmen.

We’ve come up with 10 in the Eastern Division and will unveil 10 more in the West later today.

Here's a look at the East:

[+] EnlargeJosh Malone
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsFreshman wide receiver Josh Malone is one of many new Volunteers that turned heads this spring.
Drew Barker, QB, Kentucky: Even though Patrick Towles played better in the spring game, Barker impressed the Kentucky coaches this spring and heads into the summer right in the thick of the Wildcats' starting quarterback race. True freshman starters at quarterback are rare in the SEC, but Barker is a rare talent.

Duke Dawson, CB, Florida: Florida coach Will Muschamp likes his group of young cornerbacks, and what's not to like with sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III leading the way? Dawson, a true freshman, stepped right in this spring, picked up the system and played well enough that he could be the Gators' starter at the nickel position.

Kenya Dennis, CB, Missouri: With E.J. Gaines departing, the Tigers needed some reinforcements at cornerback. Dennis, a junior college newcomer, showed enough this spring that he could be a key addition in that secondary rotation.

Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee: The Vols have been searching for that go-to running back for several years now. They think they've found him in Hurd, one of the top-rated high school backs in the country last year. The 6-3, 221-pound true freshman showcased power and speed this spring.

C.J. Johnson, DT, Kentucky: The defensive line should be one of the strengths of Kentucky's team next season, and even with the Wildcats losing their top three defensive tackles, they feel good about what Johnson will provide in the middle. Similar to Za'Darius Smith at end last season, Johnson could be the second straight junior college player to make a big impact for the Cats.

Abu Lamin, DT, South Carolina: Not only did the Gamecocks lose Jadeveon Clowney at end, but they also lost Kelcy Quarles at tackle. That's why they went out and got Lamin from junior college, and he proved to be a physical presence inside this spring.

Josh Malone, RB, Tennessee: One of several impressive true freshmen for the Vols, Malone put on a show in the spring game with three touchdown catches. Marquez North didn't have a lot of help last season at receiver. Having a big-play threat like Malone on the other side should only make North more dangerous in 2014.

Von Pearson, WR, Tennessee: The Vols shouldn't lack playmakers at receiver next season. Pearson, a junior college transfer, made waves all spring with some of his acrobatic catches. He'll almost certainly be a starter in the season opener.

A.J. Stamps, S, Kentucky: The Wildcats had a big need at safety, and Stamps jumped in and gave the entire secondary a boost with his play this spring. Coach Mark Stoops really likes Stamps' versatility. He's athletic enough to match up and play man coverage in certain sets.

Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida: Dawson wasn't the only true freshman cornerback to make his presence felt this spring at Florida. Tabor, one of the top-rated cornerback prospects in the country, made a strong bid to be the Gators' starter opposite Hargreaves next season.

Tennessee spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Tennessee Volunteers:

1. More competition: The Vols had 14 early enrollees on campus this spring, including a couple of junior college players, and that only intensified the competition for spots. Second-year coach Butch Jones made it a priority to create more competition on the practice field, helping players get to the point in which they're more battle-tested for games.

2. Infusion of skill on offense: Jones saw enough this spring to know that Tennessee will have more speed and athleticism on the field in 2014. Freshman tailback Jalen Hurd, along with freshman receiver Josh Malone and junior receiver Von Pearson, a junior college newcomer, give the Vols the kind of big-play ability they didn't have a year ago.

3. Maggitt is legit: Having redshirt junior Curt Maggitt back on defense was big on several fronts for the Vols after he missed all of last season while recovering from a knee injury. They're going to use him in several ways, including rushing the passer with his hand down, and he provides the kind of leadership and presence that Tennessee desperately needs on defense.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Defensive line muscle: Sophomore Corey Vereen was a bright spot at end, but there's not much in the way of proven players up front defensively for Tennessee, particularly at the tackle positions. The Vols will have to lean heavily on freshmen on the defensive line -- Dewayne Hendrix, Michael Sawyers, Derek Barnett and Charles Mosley -- and none of those four arrive on campus until this summer.

2. Settling on a quarterback: While senior Justin Worley would appear to the leader at this point in the quarterback race, Jones still wasn't ready to name a starter coming out of the spring. He wants to let it play out through the summer and then make a decision during preseason camp. Redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson has all the tools, although he needs to take care of the ball. Sophomore Josh Dobbs looked good in the spring game.

3. Safety help: Safety has been a problem the last couple of years for the Vols, as too many times big gains have turned into bigger gains and touchdowns. Junior Brian Randolph is going to need help, and that help probably will have to come from a trio of freshmen who haven't arrived -- Rashaan Gaulden, Todd Kelly Jr. and Cortez McDowell.

One way-too-early prediction:

It's been a while since Tennessee last enjoyed a winning season. The Vols were 7-6 in 2009, Lane Kiffin's only season in Knoxville. This team is still way too young with too many question marks on both lines of scrimmage to predict a winning regular season. But the Vols will find a way to beat one of the Big Three in the East -- Florida, Georgia or South Carolina -- and at least manage a bowl berth.

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
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LSU and Ole Miss will hold their spring games on Saturday, with six more teams set to play their games next Saturday. As spring practice winds to a close at many of the schools around the conference, let's take a look at some of today's headlines.


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Butch Jones has seen enough of Team 118 this spring to know that it should be faster, more athletic and more talented next season.

For those not up on Jones’ lingo, Team 118 is his pet name for the 118th football team in Tennessee’s proud history and the second one that he will coach.

As Rocky Top’s master brick layer, Jones’ task is clearly stated: making Tennessee football whole again by building it back brick by brick.

“If you’re going to do it right, that’s the only way,” Jones said. “There are no shortcuts.”

That’s easier said than done, especially with a win-starved fan base hanging on every shred of hope. The Vols have suffered through four straight losing seasons and haven’t had a winning SEC record since 2007, Phillip Fulmer’s next-to-last season.

That was four head coaches ago.

“We’re still not where we need to be to compete at a high level in this conference, but we have taken great steps in moving forward by increasing our team speed and overall athleticism, and the exciting thing is that there are 18 more newcomers arriving in June,” said Jones, who was 5-7 in his first season at Tennessee, which included a win over No. 11 South Carolina.

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesButch Jones knew all along that his second season at Tennessee would be challenging.
A large chunk of a signing class, ranked No. 5 nationally, is already on campus. Including junior college signees, the Vols brought in 14 early enrollees. Many of those will play key roles next season, and a handful may start.

Junior college offensive tackle Dontavius Blair and junior college receiver Von Pearson won’t have to wait long to get on the field, and the same goes for freshman running back Jalen Hurd, freshman receiver Josh Malone and freshman offensive tackle Coleman Thomas.

“We only have 13 seniors in the program,” Jones said. “We’ll be much more talented, but very youthful. It’s kind of invigorating, though, because this football team has been willing and they’ve been eager. We’ve just got to teach them.”

What you can’t teach is experience, strength and explosiveness in the offensive and defensive lines, and that’s where Jones’ greatest concern lies with Team 118.

He knew when he took the job that his second season might be his most challenging after seeing what the Vols had coming back up front. All five starting offensive linemen from a year ago are gone as well as their top five tacklers in the defensive line and seven defensive linemen from their 2013 opening-day roster.

“I knew right away when I studied the roster that we were in trouble in Year 2 in terms of depth and experience,” Jones said. “We had to make a commitment in recruiting. We have to get back to attracting the top-level offensive and defensive linemen to the University of Tennessee. We’ve had them. You look at all the great offensive and defensive linemen who played here, and now the opportunity to play early and at an institution that has that tradition in the line of scrimmage is as great as it’s ever been.”

The truth is that Jones won’t have a good feel for what his defensive line will look like next season until the rest of the freshmen start rolling in this summer. Sophomore Corey Vereen has been impressive at one end this spring, and redshirt junior Curt Maggitt is going to move around and play a lot with his hand down. But the Vols will need freshmen Derek Barnett, Dewayne Hendrix, Charles Mosley and Michael Sawyers to come in and help right away in the defensive line.

“It still has to evolve, and right now, that’s just where we are,” Jones said. “We’re going to have to play true freshmen. And as we know, this is an unforgiving league when it comes to the line of scrimmage. But it is what it is. We’ve been talking to them a lot. They have to have a great next few months at home while they’re finishing up high school, and then when they get here in June, we have to get as much out of them as we can, get them bigger and stronger.

“That’s just where we’re at in the program. We’re going to have to rely on true freshmen.”

From what he has seen so far from some of the newcomers already on campus, Maggitt isn’t sure that’s such a bad thing.

“One of the things you see is some good competition at different positions with these new guys, and you’re going to see even more when the rest of them get here this summer,” Maggitt said. “I can already tell that we’ll be a better team and a faster team.”

And maybe the team that puts an end to the longest drought in modern Tennessee football history.

"We all have the same goal, and that's getting Tennessee back to where it's supposed to be," Maggitt said. "We've got Coach Jones' back, and he has ours."

Opening spring camp: Tennessee

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Schedule: The Volunteers open spring practice on Friday at 4:20 p.m. ET. All practices are closed to the general public. The Orange and White spring game is scheduled for April 12 at 3 p.m. ET in Neyland Stadium.

What’s new: There weren’t any changes on Butch Jones’ coaching staff. All nine position coaches return in their same roles.

[+] EnlargeJalen Reeves-Maybin
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMILinebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin will take on a bigger role for Tennessee in 2014.
On the mend: Safety Brian Randolph (shoulder), defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry (knee), receiver Drae Bowles (shoulder) and tight ends A.J. Branisel (knee) and Brendan Downs (knee) will miss the spring while recovering from injuries and/or surgeries. Receiver Pig Howard isn't injured, but will not take part in the spring while taking care of personal business. It's unclear whether he will return to the team in the fall.

On the move: Sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin made the move from safety to linebacker late last season as a freshman and will spend this spring at weakside linebacker. This will be his first spring at linebacker. He enrolled early last year but missed the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery.

New faces: The Vols have 14 early enrollees from their 2014 signing class on campus, including 11 freshmen. A pair of junior college newcomers -- offensive tackle Dontavius Blair and receiver Von Pearson -- could be immediate starters. Freshman Coleman Thomas will also get a long look at offensive tackle, while running back Jalen Hurd and receiver Josh Malone were two of the highest-rated players at their positions nationally.

Question marks: There are a ton of unknowns for the Vols on both lines of scrimmage. In fact, 12 players are gone on the offensive and defensive lines from a season ago, including all five starters on the offensive line. Blair will get a chance to win the left tackle job this spring, and Thomas will be in the mix for the right tackle job. The Vols redshirted Marcus Jackson last season, and he will be a key at guard. It's also wide open on the defensive line, and most of the help on that side of the ball won't be on campus until this summer when the likes of Dewayne Hendrix, Michael Sawyers, Derek Barnett and Charles Mosley arrive. There's also a huge void at safety, especially with Randolph out for the spring. The Vols like their safety signees -- Todd Kelly Jr., Cortez McDowell and Rashaan Gaulden -- but they won't arrive until the summer.

[+] EnlargeJustin Worley
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesSenior Justin Worley is back healthy for the Volunteers, but he will battle three others to start at quarterback.
Key battle: It's a four-man race for the Vols' starting quarterback job. Three players saw action last season, but the guy who didn't play -- redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson -- has as good a chance as any to win the job. He's got a big arm and a nice release and is plenty mobile enough. Senior Justin Worley is also healthy after missing the final part of last season with a thumb injury. Sophomore Joshua Dobbs was forced into action last season as a true freshman when Worley was hurt. He has gotten bigger and stronger during the offseason. Sophomore Nathan Peterman started the Florida game last season before suffering a broken hand.

Breaking out: Finding guys who can consistently get to the quarterback will be a priority, and sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen could be poised for a big season. The 6-foot-2, 248-pound Vereen showed promise after returning from a knee injury during fall camp last season and has the kind of burst off the line that could make him a key part of Tennessee's defense. The Vols finished last in the SEC last season with 18 sacks in 12 games.

Don't forget about: Speaking of rushing the passer, getting back junior Curt Maggitt is huge for Tennessee. He missed all of last season while recovering from ACL surgery. He'll line up at outside linebacker in Tennessee's base defense, but the Vols will also walk him up to the line on passing downs. The 6-3, 244-pound Maggitt is the most talented defender on the Vols' roster. They desperately need Maggitt to be healthy and to be a leader. Jones has been encouraged by what he has seen so far.

All eyes on: Hurd and Malone are both homegrown kids who could have gone to any school in the country. They chose Tennessee because they wanted to be a part of returning the Vols to prominence. Hurd suffered a labrum injury last season in high school, so his contact might be somewhat limited. Still, there will be a lot of pressure on Hurd and Malone to deliver the kind of explosive plays on offense Tennessee lacked last season. That's a heavy burden to carry as freshmen, but they're both oozing with talent.

Vols' Jones makes state a priority

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Butch JonesGettyPaying special attention to prospects from the state of Tennessee, something coach Butch Jones says is a priority now and moving forward, the Vols landed the No. 5 recruiting class in the country.


The last of the faxes had long since arrived last Wednesday on national signing day when Tennessee coach Butch Jones took a moment to soak it all in while lounging in his office.

Jones never really lounges, per se. He was still fielding phone calls from some of the Vols' 2014 signees, not to mention some of their top prospects for the 2015 class, and recruiting as fervently as ever. But in between his cell phone blowing up with calls, he peered across his desk and stated what was front and center in a class ranked No. 5 nationally this year.

"We've got to own this state," Jones said. "I know a lot of coaches say that, but it's something we take very seriously. For us to get back to where we want to be, the Vonn Bells and Jalen Ramseys can't leave the state."

Bell and Ramsey were both ESPN 300 prospects who left the state in Jones' first class. Bell went to Ohio State and Ramsey to Florida State.

"It was a reminder of how important this state is to us," Jones said. "We wanted to make it even more of a priority in this class."

Sure enough, of the Vols' 33 signees, 10 were from the state of Tennessee, including eight from the mid-state area. That's particularly important because the population in and around Nashville is booming, and the high school talent in that area is getting better all the time.

There were two must-gets from the Nashville area in this class -- running back Jalen Hurd and receiver Josh Malone -- and the Vols got them both. Even more important, both are already on campus as early enrollees and figure to have a big impact as true freshmen. To get them, the Vols had to fend off the likes of Clemson, Florida State, Georgia and Ohio State.

"They bought in to what we're building here," Jones said. "They want to be part of the group that brings Tennessee football back to its rightful place. And being Tennessee kids, that's even more special."

Malone's cousin, Mikki Allen, played on Tennessee's 1998 national championship team, but Malone didn't really grow up a Tennessee fan. The same goes for Hurd, who felt unappreciated by the previous staff at Tennessee.

Jones and his coaches had serious work to do with both players when they landed in Knoxville and went to painstaking efforts to show Hurd, Malone and really all of the in-state prospects that it was a new day on Rocky Top. There were also hurdles to overcome with other coveted prospects from the state, including safeties Todd Kelly Jr., and Rashaan Gaulden and defensive lineman Derek Barnett.

"Gaulden’s favorite school as a kid was Miami," said Tommy Thigpen, Tennessee's linebackers coach and one of the Vols' ace recruiters. "TK’s sister is a cheerleader at Alabama. Derek Barnett’s granddad played at Ohio State. Hurd hated Tennessee, because when they came up, nobody ever offered him from the old staff. Other schools were trying to get them to come on visits. But they were such a tight-knit group that when one of them talked about visiting another school or another school was pushing them to come, the pressure from their peers and teammates was so great that they didn’t.

"When kids get other kids committed, they’re less likely to go anywhere else. They don’t want to let down their peers. That’s what was the most unique thing about this class, that none of those kids took official visits anywhere else. They were highly recruited, high character kids. It wasn’t by accident that they were a close-knit group. They committed, and they never looked anywhere else. The best sellers of the team are those guys recruiting other great players, and it was not from instruction by the coaches. They wanted to have other great players around them."

Jones said the Vols got everybody they wanted from the state in this class with the exception of ESPN 300 offensive tackle Alex Bars, who went to Notre Dame. Tennessee was also able to get a pair of in-state defensive linemen away from Vanderbilt. Michael Sawyers and Jashon Robertson had previously committed to the Commodores before re-opening their recruitment after James Franklin left for Penn State.

"It goes back to the relationships," Thigpen said. "Butch does the best job in America with the communication and the constant mailing and constant direct messaging on Twitter and Facebook and always coming up with new ideas. These kids can get bored with it real easily, but he does a good job of always changing it up and doing different things."

Video: Tennessee offseason spotlight

February, 12, 2014
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The spotlight for the Tennessee Volunteers this spring will be on the QB competition.

Chris' top impact true freshmen

February, 12, 2014
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Now that the 2014 signing classes are complete, the next thing everybody wants to know is who’s going to make the most profound impact next season as true freshmen.

That’s always a tricky proposition. Sometimes, the can't-miss guys take a while to develop or have a veteran player in front of them, while some of the lower-ranked recruits end up being better than their rankings and get on the field sooner than the five-star guys.

I'm going to take my stab at the top five impact true freshmen in the SEC next season, and Edward will come back with his top five later today.

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: No player in this class generated more buzz than Fournette, who was ranked No. 1 overall by ESPN. Very few freshmen come into the SEC looking physically like they’ve already been in the league for a couple of years, but the 6-foot-1, 226-pound Fournette fits that bill. He’s a physical runner with that extra gear to break the long ones and also has excellent hands. Moreover, the Tigers are losing Jeremy Hill early to the NFL draft along with Alfred Blue. It’s no secret that Les Miles loves to run the football, and Fournette will be toting it early and often in 2014.

Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M: Anybody who can make a play on defense next season for the Aggies will get every chance to start, and the 6-5, 247-pound Garrett is that explosive pass-rusher Texas A&M so desperately lacked a season ago while finishing last in the SEC in both scoring and total defense. Garrett, ranked as ESPN’s No. 1 defensive end prospect, has that blend of speed and power and should help the Aggies improve on their 21 sacks from last season.

Wesley Green, CB, South Carolina: The Gamecocks had to fight hard down the stretch to hold off Georgia for Green, who's from Lithonia, Ga., and was one of the top 10 prospects in that state. He's a pure cover cornerback who plays with an edge and loves to challenge receivers. That's been one of the keys for the Gamecocks over the last few seasons on defense. Their cornerbacks have been able to play tight coverage on receivers, and that's right up Green's alley. With Victor Hampton leaving early for the NFL draft and senior Jimmy Legree also departing, Green should see the field early this fall.

Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee: Over the years, Tennessee has leaned on freshman running backs more than a few times. Jamal Lewis, James "Little Man" Stewart, Arian Foster and Reggie Cobb all come to mind. Hurd, an ESPN 300 player and one of the top running back prospects in this class, is already enrolled in school, giving him a big head start. He's 6-3, 227 pounds and can also run. It's worth noting that Hurd is coming off an injury during his senior year of high school, but with the Vols losing 1,124-yard rusher Rajion Neal, they're going to need a workhorse in that backfield.

Cameron Robinson, OT, Alabama: The Crimson Tide went into West Monroe, La., to get the 6-6, 325-pound Robinson, and it's not too far-fetched to think that he could emerge as Alabama's starting left tackle next season. Robinson, ranked as the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the country by ESPN, is already on campus as an early enrollee and will go through spring practice. He's evoked visions of Cyrus Kouandjio when Kouandjio was a true freshman, and Kouandjio played in eight games that season before suffering an injury. Robinson is made of the same stuff both physically and mentally.

Now that you've seen the national signing day hits and misses from the SEC West, it's time to take a look at how the East fared:

FLORIDA

Needs filled: With four starters gone from the secondary, Florida got right to work on their replacements by signing three ESPN 300 cornerback prospects, including early enrollees Jalen Tabor (five-star) and Duke Dawson. The Gators also signed five defensive linemen, including No. 2 defensive tackle Gerald Willis III and No. 3 defensive tackle Thomas Holley. Along with six offensive line signees, Florida added much-needed quarterback depth with ESPN 300 members Will Grier (early enrollee) and former Florida State commit Treon Harris.

Holes remaining: Florida missed out on elite offensive playmakers in running back Dalvin Cook and Ermon Lane, who both flipped from Florida to Florida State. The Gators also lost out on five-star cornerback/receiver Adoree' Jackson to USC and ESPN 300 offensive tackle Damian Prince to Maryland.

GEORGIA

Needs filled: The Bulldogs had some big gets on signing day by keeping five-star defensive end Lorenzo Carter home and surprising everyone by signing explosive ESPN 300 athlete Isaiah McKenzie. The Bulldogs signed three other defensive linemen and the No. 2 and No. 7 running backs in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. Georgia also secured the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback in Jacob Park and second-ranked tight end Jeb Blazevich.

Holes remaining: Georgia didn't necessarily need a big linebacker haul, but the Bulldogs did watch top-notch linebackers on their board Raekwon McMillan, Rashaan Evans and Bryson Allen-Williams go elsewhere. They would have also liked to have secured an elite receiver and missed on ESPN 300 cornerback Wesley Green, who signed with South Carolina.

KENTUCKY

Needs filled: Coach Mark Stoops really made a splash with this recruiting class and hopes to have his quarterback of the future with ESPN 300 member -- and early enrollee -- Drew Barker. Barker will have help with the additions of ESPN 300 running back Stanley Williams and ESPN 300 receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass. He also hit the defensive line hard, snatching ESPN 300 defensive end Denzel Ware away from Florida State and four-star defensive tackle Matt Elam away from Alabama. Stoops also signed ESPN 300 corners Kendall Randolph and Darius West.

Holes remaining: With the loss of senior Avery Williamson and the other holes at linebacker on the roster, the Wildcats would have liked to add a couple more linebackers to this class.

MISSOURI

Needs filled: The Tigers' staff needed to add to the offensive line and the secondary, and had to come away pretty satisfied with the prospects they secured. The gem of the class is ESPN 300 offensive tackle Andy Bauer, who should provide immediate depth up front. Mizzou also signed four other offensive linemen. The Tigers grabbed six defensive back signees and ESPN 300 linebacker Brandon Lee.

Holes remaining: While Mizzou was able to sign three players who could see time along the defensive line, the Tigers missed out on ESPN 300 defensive tackle Poona Ford, who signed with Texas, and weren't able to flip Tennessee ESPN 300 defensive end signee Derek Barnett.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Needs filled: The Gamecocks needed to add some quality depth to their secondary and did just that with the signing of ESPN 300 members Chris Lammons, who flipped from Florida, D.J. Smith, and Wesley Green, along with two other defensive back prospects. Steve Spurrier also bolstered a defensive line that lost three starters by signing ESPN 300 members Dante Sawyer (DE) and Dexter Wideman (DT), along with junior college standout tackles Jhaustin Thomas and Abu Lamin.

Holes remaining: You can never have too many offensive linemen, and the Gamecocks only signed two. South Carolina would have probably liked to sign another elite receiver prospect with the loss of Bruce Ellington, and didn't sign a running back.

TENNESSEE

Needs filled: The Vols signed a hefty class, and met most of their needs in the process. ESPN 300 receiver Josh Malone and ESPN 300 running back Jalen Hurd, both of whom are early enrollees, should make an immediate impact. ESPN 300 running back Derrell Scott should help as well, along with juco transfer receiver LaVon Pearson. Tennessee secured four ESPN 300 defensive backs, grabbed two ESPN 300 linebackers in Dillon Bates and Gavin Bryant, and signed a handful of defensive line prospects, including ESPN 300 ends Dewayne Hendrix and Derek Barnett.

Holes remaining: After losing all five starters from last season's offensive line, signing a couple more linemen would have been a plus for the Vols. Tennessee signed only three offensive linemen and also lost defensive tackle Cory Thomas to Mississippi State on signing day.

VANDERBILT

Needs filled: After dipping down into single-digit verbal numbers, the Commodores closed with 22 signees. The biggest gets were ESPN 300 members Nifae Lealao (defensive tackle) and Dallas Rivers (running back), who could provide immediate help. After losing ESPN 300 quarterback Kyle Carta-Samuels to Washington, the Commodores flipped Pittsburgh commit Wade Freebeck and former East Carolina commit Shawn Stankavage.

Holes remaining: Losing offensive lineman Andrew Mike to Florida just before signing day hurt and as signing day went on, you just weren't seeing the same caliber players that former coach James Franklin brought in, which was going to be tough for new coach Derek Mason, anyway. Vandy also missed out on Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett.

SEC recruiting storylines: Nov. 14 

November, 14, 2013
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A week after LSU-Alabama took center stage in the recruiting universe, the Auburn Tigers will take the spotlight this weekend with a number of big-time prospects expected on the Plains.

Stellar visitor list expected on the Plains

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