SEC: Von Pearson

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.
Having things unsettled at quarterback in the SEC isn't exactly a recipe for success. And it certainly doesn't help a coach who is entering his second year on the job.

But that's the hand that Butch Jones was dealt at Tennessee, as he enters summer No. 2 with the Vols.

However, it's not exactly bleak when it comes to Tennessee's passing game. Finding a quarterback is of top priority for the Vols, but the good news is that whichever QB takes the reins this fall should have a big-time, top-flight receiver to sling the ball to.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North made big strides in the spring, and more WR help is on the way for the Vols.
If you haven't already met rising sophomore Marquez North, say hello to one of the best catches your eyes will have the pleasure of seeing.

If that wasn't enough for you, North finished his freshman season with a team-high 496 yards on 38 receptions. He had just one touchdown grab last year, and that number will have to increase in 2014, but North likely won't have an issue doing that.

Even with the quarterback position unsettled, there are a few things working in North's favor this year.

For starters, North was working mostly with raw talent last year. He was an athlete who could go on the field and find the ball. Through the first six games, North averaged three catches for 29.9 yards per game. During his last five games, North averaged four catches for 63.4 yards per contest. During that last stretch, North saw South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri, Auburn and Vanderbilt. Three of those defenses -- Alabama, South Carolina and Vanderbilt -- ended the season ranked in the top 25 nationally in total defense.

As the year went on, North simply got better. He learned, using his ever-growing knowledge to be a legit threat for the Vols. That's exactly what you want to see out of young players, especially one who could be a real game-changer for a team that needs some more excitement in its offense.

What Vols coaches and fans should be excited about is that North also took a few big steps forward in his development this spring. He added some bulk and looks even more the part physically. He's better with checks at the line and ran crisper routes this spring. He's learning to do more than just be an athlete. He's turning into a well-rounded wide receiver.

He'll also have more help around him this fall with the additions of freshman Josh Malone and junior college transfer Von Pearson. That will give North a lot of room to breathe and roam around the field. It won't make sense for defenses to key on just him this fall.

And that will make North that much more potent for the Vols. We saw flashes of what North could be, and we'll start to see what he really is this fall. That's very good news for the Vols.
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.

SEC lunchtime links

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
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It's Friday! That means some much deserved time off, the continuation of the SEC hoops tournament in Atlanta and the opening of a few more spring football practices around the SEC. Alabama gets going on Saturday, and Arkansas kicks off on Sunday. To get you ready, here's some reading material that should get you through Friday and on into the weekend.
  • Nick Saban for president! No, not that president. The Alabama head coach received a few write-in votes for SGA president, outpacing some of his own players in the process.
  • Miracle man Chris Davis is no longer in Auburn's secondary. But the Tigers do have some talent returning at cornerback. Here's a good breakdown of the position to get you ready for spring practice on The Plains.
  • As stated earlier, Arkansas opens spring camp this weekend. For those you who like to plan ahead, here's a full rundown of the Razorbacks schedule.
  • Our very own Mel Kiper Jr. sees former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney going No. 3 overall to the Jaguars in the upcoming NFL draft. But he could also see the talented defensive end ending up in other locations.
  • He's battling inconsistency, but Vols wideout Von Pearson is being described by his coach as "ultra-talented." His offensive coordinator would one-up that assessment, calling the 6-foot-3 target "very, very, very talented."
  • Maty Mauk is clearly the leader to become Missouri's starting quarterback, but he's no incumbent. Trent Hosick is aiming to compete for the job, himself. But the quarterback room, as he describes it, is "loaded."
  • It's early, but the defense is running a little ahead of the offense at LSU. Les Miles said, as only Les Miles could, that "there's a lot of speed and get-to-the-ball" on defense.
  • Vanderbilt needs more playmakers on offense with Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause gone. That's why Derek Mason moved talented freshman C.J. Duncan from quarterback/running back to receiver, where he has no game experience.

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