Six games and half way through the season, where are we as a team….and what needs to happen the next six games, all SEC contests, to continue the momentum Coach Jones and staff have started the first year and one-half.
The big picture needs to be kept front and center and that is difficult for fans and supporters of which I am one. There is no question that we are better and moving in the right direction in so many areas: talent at most every position (most of it very young), ongoing recruiting as this next class looks to be as good or better than the last, academics, on and off the field discipline, improvement in many of the areas that had to be addressed two years ago. Off the field in academic help and university relationships we are miles ahead of where we were when Dave Hart took over.
From my viewpoint we are ahead of where I thought we would be off the field and about where I thought we would be on the field.
It is also very important that this 2014 team find a way in these last six games to win at least three and get to a bowl game. Additional practice for this young team, the ability to bring in recruits during bowl practice and allow them to see how Tennessee practices and keeping the off the field momentum are just some of the benefits of going to a bowl. Important but not program threatening.
The strengths and weaknesses of this team are apparent to any fan that watches closely and even more apparent to the next six opponents the Vols will play. Practice will help if done correctly but in a couple of areas the only answer is recruiting.
Here is what I see at the halfway mark from a position standpoint…..ranking from best down taking into consideration depth, talent and class position.
Wide receiver– North (So), Pearson (Jr), Croom (R-Jr), Howard (Jr), Malone (Fr), Smith (So) have proven they can be very productive. Johnson (R-Jr), Jenkins (R-Fr) and Wharton (Fr) lately have shown they also can be quality receivers and Wharton should figure in the return game in the future. Note that all are under classmen and should return next season.
Safety – This is a position that while young is playing at a high level right now. Randolph (R-Jr) and McNeil (Jr) are starters but are being pushed by Kelly, Jr (Fr), Evan Berry (Fr) and Gaulden (Fr). Swafford (So) and Foreman (So) add depth and all of these young men can play the nickel position if needed. Gaulden and Berry have the speed to play corner if needed. Again all are under classmen and should return.
Defensive end – Barnett (Fr), Vereen (So), Maggitt (R-Jr), Hendrix (Fr). Barnett is playing the best of the front four in my opinion. Ditto for under classmen.
Outside linebacker – Reeves-Mabin (So), Weatherd (Jr), Bates (Fr), Elliott Berry (Fr) and McDowell (Fr) provide a very bright future at this position. Bates now out with injury for the season could also play the middle backer position if needed. Weatherd is a pass rush specialist right now but could also play defensive end in the future if needed. Creamer (Fr) will be a player at OLB or DE or TE in my opinion.
Tight end – Wolf (Fr), Helm (Fr), Ellis (R-Jr) and Downs (Sr). This is a solid group with a big upside with the freshmen that with playing time could be a real strength.
Corner – Sutton (So), Williams (R-So) and Moseley (Fr) have shown the ability to play at the SEC level. Payne (Fr) is coming along and Gaulden and Evan Berry as mentioned earlier can play this position. Note: This position will be a big recruiting position as the Vols are looking to sign at least three corners in the 2015 class.
Defensive tackle – J. Williams (Sr), O. Williams (R-Jr), O’Brien (R-So), Saulsberry (R-Jr), Mixon (Fr) and Sawyers (Fr) are solid players that are playing at a high level. Hendrix (DE) could move inside if needed. Note: as always another big recruiting need.
Running back – Hurd (Fr), Lane (Sr) and Scott (Fr). Talented but more depth needed.
Middle linebacker – A.J. Johnson (Sr), J. Johnson (Fr) and Jumper (Fr). Big concern right now for 2015. Bates and Bryant could move here.
Quarterback – Worley (Sr), Peterman (R-So) and Dobbs (So). With Worley graduating this is Tennessee’s biggest recruiting need.
Offensive line – Robertson (Fr), Thomas (Fr) appear to be the best of this group. I say” appear” because after six games they all look about the same to me. Crowder (R-Jr), Jackson (R-Jr), Kerbyson (R-Jr), Kendrick (R-Fr), Weisman (So), Sanders (R-Fr), Blair (Jr)……and maybe a few more, all have been average at best so far. Compared to our opposition in this conference this position is in the lower twenty percent in my opinion. At present we do not have a player that is a true tackle playing and this is the one area that only recruiting will fix.
As with any team there are a couple of young players that the staff is trying to find the right position to place them. When this happens you often move players around often and see where they are the best fit. That list would include Evan and Elliott Berry, Nikko Creamer as well as others. As I have often said the biggest mistake one could make is judge a young man as a freshman…..I can name you several outstanding Volunteers that took a little while to adjust to the University. Of the thirty-two new players brought in this year there are very few that will not contribute to rebuilding this program.
Analysis….the offensive tackle position and quarterback need help immediately next fall. Middle linebacker could but there are players who could move there if needed already on the team. Running back needs depth but we have at least one dynamic player there, possibly two. You never have enough defensive tackles or corners but these as well as the remaining positions are in good shape heading into recruiting. Overall goal….get the depth back to the championship level ASAP.
Compared to last season I believe we have improved at every position group talent wise except the offensive line…..not bad after one recruiting class.