SEC: Jalen Hurd

videoThe last road game Jalen Hurd took part in was just over a year ago when his Beech High School Buccaneers traveled six miles to play Station Camp High School, a game televised on ESPN. The Tennessee commitment did not disappoint, rushing for 177 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries and even adding a late interception.

But that was then. This is now.

On Saturday, Hurd and his fellow Tennessee squad will travel to Norman, Oklahoma, to face a Sooners team that has a home record of 88-5 under current coach Bob Stoops. The hundreds of opposing spectators Hurd faced in high school will be replaced by 82,112 delirious fans inside Memorial Stadium.

[+] EnlargeJalen Hurd
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsRB Jalen Hurd stands out among a group of freshmen who have made an immediate impact with the Volunteers.
“It’s going to be different,” Hurd said. “But that’s when you come in, you look at your teammates and you know that you’ve got each other’s back. Every play you’re going to help your team out to try and get the win.”

Earlier this week, Tennessee coach Butch said that more than half his team will be making their first ever road trip. Some of the younger guys have never even flown in a plane before. It will certainly be a new experience for this young Volunteers squad.

“I’m excited to see how our team responds against one of the top three football teams in the country,” Jones said. “Is the stage too big for them? Do they embrace the challenge? Do we understand what it takes to play winning football on the road?

“I’m looking forward to seeing how fast we can grow up as a football team.”

Through two games, Jones can’t complain. The freshmen have exceeded expectations, and it’s a big reason why the Vols are sitting at 2-0. Hurd, in particular, rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown last Saturday against Arkansas State and became the first UT running back since Arian Foster in 2005 to earn SEC Freshman of the Week honors.

Other freshmen of note from Saturday’s win included tight end Ethan Wolf, who led the team in receptions, and defensive back Todd Kelly Jr., who made his first career start and finished with five tackles.

However, Saturday’s trip to Oklahoma will be a new challenge for the 22 true freshmen who have already played this season.

“It’s my first away game,” Kelly said. “I haven’t really experienced it before, but I know they have an awesome atmosphere. Their fans are great for their team, and we’re going in looking for a win. We’re trying to go 3-0 just as they are. I think it will be a great game, a competitive game, and we’re looking forward to it.”

The experts don’t give Tennessee much of a chance. The latest line from Bovada has the Sooners as a three-touchdown favorite, but there’s a different attitude in Knoxville this year that hasn’t been there in years past.

As Jones said Wednesday on the SEC teleconference, there’s a difference between believing you’re going to win and hoping to win. This team believes it can win.

“It will take a four-quarter game, and we’re going to have to come with our A-game, which we will,” Hurd said.

As a coach, that’s the attitude you want from your young stars. But at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do to try to prepare them. This isn’t Station Camp High School anymore. This is Oklahoma.

“You never really know,” Jones said. “You try to do the crowd noises and the different things in practice, but you never really know how they’re going to respond until you’re on that game field and it’s for real.”

This Saturday, it will be for real.

How Tennessee can hang with Oklahoma 

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
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Trevor KnightKevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsThe Vols would be wise to blitz QB Trevor Knight and force OU to rely heavily on the passing game.
Tennessee has held steady at most Vegas books as a three-touchdown underdog Saturday at Oklahoma. It would clearly be a significant, ahead-of-schedule upset if the Volunteers were to win in Norman, Oklahoma.

Even UT coach Butch Jones was aware this week of Bob Stoops’ 88-5 home record. (I tried to be comforting, reminding Jones that three of the five losses have come since 2011.)

But c'mon, we've learned enough about college football to know that the unexpected is to be expected. Week 3 looks on paper like a dud, so naturally it will provide indelible games and impactful results. That’s how it goes.

For Tennessee, here's the game plan that can, at minimum, keep the Vols hanging around in the second half on the road against the Oklahoma Sooners.

Knight under center



Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight is the central character, after talking with Big 12 and SEC coaches about the game.

If Tennessee has designs on winning, or at least staying in the game, it needs to do the following where Knight is concerned:

Hit him: “Knight doesn’t like [to be hit],” a Big 12 coach told me. “He didn’t finish some games last year.”

Let’s be clear: No one is advocating trying to injure a player, not at all, but it’s significant to note that coaches still aren’t sold on Knight’s durability.

We know Knight became a darling after the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama -- but he could not finish the previous game against Oklahoma State. Backup Blake Bell entered and bailed out the Sooners with a late TD drive, the only offensive TD of the game for OU.

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 2

September, 10, 2014
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Several true freshmen in the SEC are already starting to make impacts for their teams. Let’s take a look at five who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) from the Week 2 in the conference:

Leonard Fournette, LSU

What he did: Fournette probably generated more discussion by what he did after a play -- he struck a Heisman pose after his first career touchdown, against an FCS opponent no less -- than what he did during one. The LSU tailback actually had a good game against Sam Houston State, rushing for 92 yards and a score on 13 carries and making a pair of impressive catches for another 32 yards. But Fournette’s look-at-me antics definitely rubbed LSU coach Les Miles, and many others, the wrong way.

What it means: After barely making an impact in the opener against Wisconsin, Fournette had a bit more room to run in the 56-0 rout of SHSU. His cutback and sprint into the open field on a 40-yard run that set up his touchdown was a thing of beauty. He’ll need to make a lot more of those before thinking about throwing another Heisman pose, though. It was a nice Tiger Stadium debut, but let’s see him do that against some major-conference competition first. (David Ching)

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M

What he did: For the second consecutive week, Garrett had a tangible impact on the Aggies’ pass rush. He finished with five tackles, two tackles for loss, two sacks and two quarterback hurries vs. Lamar. He already has as many sacks this season (three) as any Texas A&M defender had in all of 2013. He leads the team in that categories as well as hurries (four) this season.

What it means: There was no letdown after a quality Week 1 performance for Garrett. He's not playing like a true freshman; he's playing like a veteran defensive end. That's exactly what the Aggies needed and it's helping the unit as a whole since the Aggies no longer have to blitz to create a pass rush. Between Garrett and sophomore defensive end Daeshon Hall, the Aggies can generate sufficient pass rush with their defensive line alone at this point. (Sam Khan)

Treon Harris, Florida

What he did: Florida’s freshman backup QB was 2-for-2 passing for 148 yards and two touchdowns. His first two collegiate attempts were perfectly thrown balls that went for long TDs. First was a deep ball that Demarcus Robinson caught in stride and then ran past the Eastern Michigan defender, who fell down, for a 70-yard TD. Harris’ second pass was a wheel route to Mark Herndon, who ran virtually untouched to the end zone for a 78-yard TD.

What it means: Harris finished the game with a ridiculous 1051.6 quarterback rating. Starter Jeff Driskel went 31-for-45 for 248 yards and a score in the opener -- which Florida won 65-0 -- so it’s not like his job is in jeopardy. But it’s clear that the Gators have replenished their quarterback depth chart with some impressive talent. (Jeff Barlis)

Jalen Hurd, Tennessee

What he did: Hurd helped Tennessee grind out a 34-19 win against Arkansas State by rushing 23 times for 83 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that gave the Volunteers a lead they would not relinquish. The young offensive line is still finding its way in the run-blocking department, but Hurd is already proving himself as a productive runner.

What it means: The freshman is fast emerging as one of the Vols’ top options -- and probably THE top option -- at running back. Hurd leads the team with 112 rushing yards, but is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. Tennessee has to develop a more productive running game in order to compete with its most talented opponents, and that shortcoming doesn’t bode well with a trip to Oklahoma on tap this weekend. (David Ching)

Speedy Noil, Texas A&M

What he did: Noil had a breakout game, compiling 191 all-purpose yards in the win over Lamar. He tied for the team lead in receptions (four) for 71 yards, returned a punt for 67 yards and returned a kickoff for 53 yards. His punt return ended prematurely at the Lamar 4-yard line and Kevin Sumlin joked after the game that "We didn't bring you here to fall down at the 4-yard line."

What it means: Noil will finish one of those returns with a touchdown soon enough, given his electric speed and he'll continue to see his role expand in the Aggies' offense. But don't expect Noil to catch 8-10 passes a week; the Aggies have enough receiving options to spread it around generously. As time passes, Noil will become more effective as a receiver and develop into a strong weapon in the offense. (Sam Khan)

Other notables:

QB Kyle Allen, Texas A&M: After losing the preseason quarterback competition to Kenny Hill, Allen got a chance to play in a blowout win against Lamar and had his ups and downs. He finished 12-for-16 for 122 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

DB Duke Dawson, Florida: The versatile Dawson picked off a pass by EMU quarterback Rob Bolden and returned it for a 36-yard touchdown. Dawson also had a tackle and a quarterback hurry in the Gators’ blowout win.

LB Rashaan Evans, Alabama: Evans made the most of his first chance to contribute on defense, notching two tackles, a sack and a quarterback hurry that could have become a second sack if he had done a better job of wrapping up the passer.

QB Brandon Harris, LSU: In his first substantial playing time, Harris came off the bench to go 4-for-5 for 62 yards and a touchdown and also ran for an impressive 46-yard score against SHSU.

RB Stanley Williams, Kentucky: Williams helped the Wildcats break out to a 17-0 lead in a win against Ohio by busting a 53-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. He finished with five carries for 60 yards and a score.

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 1

September, 3, 2014
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video

The SEC appears to be loaded with true freshmen who will make immediate impacts with their teams this season. Let's take a look at five who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) from the first weekend of the fall.

NICK CHUBB, GEORGIA

What he did: Chubb ran like a grown man against Clemson, particularly on a 47-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that essentially put away the Bulldogs' victory. Chubb took a pitch right and burst through a pile of Tigers -- literally dragging linebacker Stephone Anthony for 5 yards after Anthony grabbed him by the left ankle -- before breaking into the open field and outrunning all defenders. Chubb finished the day with four carries for 70 yards.

What it means: Chubb and Sony Michel proved against Clemson why they generated preseason buzz, with both freshmen making plays that helped the Bulldogs earn a key opening win. Chubb is going to be a superb complement to Todd Gurley in Georgia's backfield, as both players have shown the ability to run with speed and power. Gurley might be the nation's top tailback, but the freshmen have proven that the Bulldogs have more than one dynamic weapon in the backfield. -- David Ching

MYLES GARRETT, TEXAS A&M

What he did: The five-star defensive end showed why he has received so much offseason buzz, having an immediate impact in the Aggies' win over South Carolina. Garrett had a sack and two quarterback hurries and came close to hitting Dylan Thompson several more times. Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said Garrett's stat line didn't show his total impact, and forcing Thompson into errant throws is “as good as sacks.”

What it means: He has the look of an All-SEC Freshman Team selection right out of the gate. The Aggies had virtually no pass rush last season (they were last in the SEC in sack percentage), but the addition of Garrett remedies that immediately. Combined with returning defensive end Daeshon Hall, the Aggies have speed on the edge to pressure quarterbacks and Garrett looks poised to live up to his lofty status as the No. 4 player in the 2014 class. -- Sam Khan Jr.

JALEN HURD, TENNESSEE

What he did: Freshman running back Hurd enjoyed his introduction to the Neyland Stadium faithful, scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown on a 15-yard screen pass from Justin Worley. Hurd struggled to find much running room out of the backfield, rushing 11 times for 29 yards, but his touchdown pushed the Volunteers' lead to 31-0 in a momentum-building 38-7 victory against Utah State.

What it means: Tennessee needs to develop a more dangerous running game, so the shifty moves Hurd displayed on his touchdown might be a positive sign of things to come. He was a U.S. Army All-American and former Mr. Football in Tennessee in high school, so Vols fans expect big things from the freshman back. Last Saturday provided just a small taste of his capabilities, but he looked awfully natural slipping tacklers and exploding into the end zone for his first career touchdown. -- David Ching

SPEEDY NOIL, TEXAS A&M

What he did: Noil didn't have quite the explosive start that some expected, but still performed well in his collegiate debut. He caught five passes for 55 yards and served as the team's primary punt returner. He did drop a pass, but that's easily corrected, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said. Spavital said he was impressed with Noil's physical ability as a blocker when the Aggies ran the football.

What it means: As long as drops don't become a trend, Noil should be an impact receiver for the A&M offense. The Aggies have plenty of receivers to go to and Kenny Hill threw to 12 different players on Thursday night, but Noil's speed and physicality are going to make him a factor in the Aggies' offense. He won a starting job for a reason, so while Thursday didn't blow anybody away, expect him to prove his worth sooner rather than later. -- Sam Khan Jr.

CAM ROBINSON, ALABAMA

What he did: He had his freshmen moments -- at one time Blake Sims had to literally move him into the proper position -- but Robinson more than held his own against West Virginia. Neither he nor the entire Alabama offensive line allowed a single sack in Atlanta, helping the offense stay balanced with 288 yards rushing and 250 yards through the air.

What it means: The former five-star prospect showed all the tools that earned him the job of starting left tackle: ideal size, great feet and good hands. Granted he'll make some mistakes this season, but his ceiling is off the charts. As he begins to play with more confidence, he could become a real road grader for the Tide. -- Alex Scarborough

Other notables:

Leonard Fournette, LSU: Ran eight times for 18 yards and returned five kickoffs for 117 yards (23.4 ypr, with a long of 33 yards) against Wisconsin.

Mikel Horton, Kentucky: Ran seven times for 45 yards and scored touchdowns of 18 and 14 yards against UT-Martin.

Sony Michel, Georgia: Ran six times for 33 yards, caught three passes for 20 yards and made two tackles on special teams against Clemson.

J.K. Scott, Alabama: Only punted twice, but one of them was a booming 62-yard effort that led to West Virginia taking over at its own 7-yard line. That helped the freshman average 50.5 yards per punt in the win.

Armani Watts, Texas A&M: Started at safety and had an interception, two pass breakups and three tackles in a win over South Carolina.

Tennessee Volunteers season preview

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC 

Previewing the 2014 season for the Tennessee Volunteers:

2013 record: 5-7

Final grade for the 2013 season: Butch Jones' first season on the field at Tennessee was a mixed bag. The Vols took Georgia to overtime and upset South Carolina two weeks later. They also lost for a second straight season to Vanderbilt, lost four of their final five games to end the season and wound up below .500 for the fourth straight season. All in all, it was just a notch below average, so a C-minus sounds about right.

[+] EnlargeJustin Worley
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith more weapons around him this season, Justin Worley is aiming to deliver Tennessee to a bowl game.
Key losses: RB Rajion Neal, OT Ja'Wuan James, OT Antonio Richardson, DT Daniel McCullers, DE Corey Miller, PK/P Michael Palardy

Key returnees: QB Justin Worley, WR Marquez North, OG Marcus Jackson, DE Curt Maggitt, DE Corey Vereen, LB A.J. Johnson, CB Cameron Sutton

Instant impact newcomers: RB Jalen Hurd, WR Von Pearson, WR Josh Malone, TE Ethan Wolf, OT Coleman Thomas, DE Derek Barnett, CB Emmanuel Moseley

Breakout player: Most of the preseason drama at Tennessee revolved around the quarterback race, but Jones ended that last week when he named Worley the starter. Had he not injured his thumb and missed the remainder of the season a year ago, the Vols probably would have gone to a bowl game. He's been put in some tough positions during his career, including being thrown to the wolves as a true freshman before he was ready. But he's persevered. His arm has gotten stronger. He's healthy now, and he also has more playmakers around him this season. Nobody's pushing him for the Heisman Trophy or even All-SEC honors, but here's betting Worley has a very solid senior season after throwing more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (11) in his previous three seasons.

Most important game: We'll cheat and go 1A (Florida on Oct. 4) and 1B (Missouri on Nov. 22). Both games are at home, and both will go a long way toward determining whether or not the Vols can make it to the postseason. They've lost nine in a row to Florida, so ending that drought would be a big step in the right direction for Jones and the program. The Missouri game is sandwiched between a home game with Kentucky and the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt. It could be that the Vols have to win all three to go bowling.

Biggest question mark: It's gotta be the defensive line. The Vols don't return any starters up front defensively and are hopeful Maggitt can stay healthy and become that finisher off the edge after moving from linebacker to end. He missed all of last season with a knee injury and has been banged up in preseason camp. The Vols like their collection of young defensive linemen, but how well they're able to hold up right there in the middle of their defense is a huge concern.

Upset special: Right out of the gate, Tennessee had better be on its toes. Chuckie Keeton and Utah State aren't coming to Neyland Stadium on Aug. 31 to soak up the sights and sounds. The Aggies are coming to win.

Key stat: Tennessee is the only FBS team in the country without a returning starter in the offensive or defensive lines.

They said it: “We’re going through the realities of building a football program. 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." -- Tennessee coach Butch Jones

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 5.4 wins

Bovada over-under: 5.5 wins

Our take: The killer for Tennessee is being so unproven in both the offensive and defensive lines. The Vols will be counting on a ton of players up front who are seeing their first meaningful SEC action. The good news is that they've added speed on both sides of the ball and have more players at the offensive skill positions capable of making big plays. Jones has given everybody in the Tennessee family a reason to believe again with his recruiting prowess. The Vols are still a year away from contending in the East, but should be able to squeeze out six wins and get to a bowl game in 2014.

Butch Jones: Vols have 'momentum'

July, 24, 2014
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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
Apr 30
5:30
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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
Apr 4
12:00
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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

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6
5:00
PM ET
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.

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