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Jul. 06, 2015 - DJ Boyer

2015 Fierce 40 Previews: #40 Tennessee

**DJ Boyer begins his annual countdown of the Top 40 teams in College Football. Welcome to the 2014 Fierce 40!!**

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#40 Tennessee Volunteers


2014 Recap:
After three successive 5-7 seasons, the Volunteers finished 6-6 and qualified for the Tax Slayer Bowl, a game they won against Iowa 45-28. The win left Tennessee 7-6 on the season, their first winning campaign since 2009. Tennessee was 3-5 in the SEC, the toughest conference at the NCAA level year after year.

Butch Jones enters his third year at Tennessee and the recruiting classes have been noticably better since he took over. Jones had successful coaching stops at Central Michigan and Cincinncati prior to Tennessee. Mike DeBord comes aboard this year as the new offensive coordinator after he served a multitude of roles at Michigan and has five years of NFL experience on his resume. John Jancek has served as the defenisve coordinator since coming over from Cincinnati with Butch Jones. Tennessee finished a respectable 32nd in total defense and 40th in points allowed per game at 23.9.


Quarterbacks/Running Backs:

After the injury to Justin Worley last season it looked like Tennessee was destined for another dreadful season but that was not the case. Josh Dobbsstepped in leading the team to an overtime road win against South Carolina and then closed with two wins in the last three games. The lone loss was a respectable showing against Missouri 29-21. Dobbs did not quite have the same passing efficiency that Justin Worley displayed but the mobility and ability to create plays with his legs is what turned around the season for the Vols. Worley had -105 yards on the ground with three touchdowns while Dobbs in fewer starts had six touchdowns on the ground and accounted for nearly 400 yards rushing. The victory over Iowa in the Tax Slayer Bowl summed it all up for Dobbs. Dobbs had just 129 yards passing but was an efficient 16-21 while rushing for 73 yards and a pair of scores. Time of possession was five minutes greater with Dobbs at the controls and the effect could be seen with the defense as well as the offense.

Most importantly the effect was seen with freshman running back Jalen Hurd who had nearly 900 yards as a freshman and three of his four 100-yard performances came with Dobbs starting under center; hardly a coincidence. The running game doesn't just end with Hurd, as junior college transfer Alvin Kamara will bring some big play ability and offer a different running style than the 230-pound Hurd.


Best Draft Prospect: Jalen Hurd RB 5th Round 2018.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

At first glance this doesn't look like a top flight receiving corps. Upon closer inspection you will see why the team will improve upon their 70th overall ranking from last season in the passing game. This is a team without a true superstar but they are deep and have experience everywhere you look. The key will be keeping the entire corps healthy because the overall balance and depth of the unit is what makes Tennessee stronger than many believe. Marquez North is the true talent here and he looks like the top prospect despite the fact that he has yet to have a banner season. North has just four touchdowns in two seasons but he has flashed big play ability in his time with the program. Pig Howard, Josh Malone, and Von Pearson will vie for playing time in the other two starting positions as we will see Tennessee employ three wide receiver sets and a spread offense on most occasions.

When you throw in tight end Ethan Wolf who contributed 23 catches with the receivers previously mentioned, you have 168 catches returning to the team or 60% of all completed passes from 2014. This figure also comes after North and another member of the team Josh Smith, are coming off seasons where they missed significant time due to injury. I expect more touchdown passing as Tennessee will become more efficient in the red zone with the added teeth to their running attack.

Best Draft Prospect: Marquez North WR 4th Round 2017.

Offensive Line:

The offensive line seems to be the component of the offense that scares many when they hesitate to proclaim Tennessee as "back" or ready to contend. It's true that Tennessee gave up an SEC high 43 sacks last season but 29 of those sacks came with Justin Worley as the quarterback and 12, or just over a pair per game, with the more mobile Dobbs under center. It's true we don't see a breakout starter along the line but four starters are back. Marcus Jackson is the only one with a draft grade as the senior is currently carrying a 7th-round grade as a guard. Brett Kendrick steps in at left tackle and he could turn out to be the most talented of the bunch, but we need to see more of him in action to accrue an accurate assessment. Not only does the line seem to be the least talented component of the offense but it's also the thinnest from a depth perspective, so injuries need to be avoided if the Volunteers want to compete.

Best Draft Prospect: Marcus Jackson OG 7th Round 2016.



Defensive Line:

Many have pointed to the Tennessee defense as the aspect where they had been lacking over the last six or seven seasons as they fell from grace within the SEC. Recruiting classes have improved dramatically and Tennessee is starting to see that, especially along the defensive line. Derek Barnett was among the most active linemen in the conference as a freshman in 2014 when he posted 20.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Barnett and fellow defensive end Clint Maggitt may form the most potent defensive end duo in the conference, similar to what we saw out of Kentucky with Bud Dupree and ZaDarius Smith a season ago. Maggitt had 15 tackles for loss and led the team with 11 sacks, so opposing offensive tackles will have their hands full.

Danny O'Brien returns at defensive tackle and he will be joined by Owen Williams. Williams looks capable and has experience but this is a downgrade from the departed Jordan Williams. There is plenty of backup talent in Tennessee but many of the backups are very young and a little light on experience.

Best Draft Prospect: Derek Barnett DE 1st Round 2017 (with early declaration).


Just a few seasons ago A.J. Johnson looked like a borderline first round talent at middle linebacker. Johnson returned for his senior season but after 10 games and 101 tackles, off-the-field legal issues derailed his collegiate career and he went undrafted as a result. Jaylen Reeves-Maybin tied Johnson for the team lead in tackles with 101, but he needed the full 13 games to do so and is nowhere near as versatile as the athletic freak A.J. Johnson. There are some definite question marks here on defense as teams should look to attack Tennessee right up the middle after the departure of Johnson and defensive tackle Jordan Williams. Johnson also doubled as a running back and excelled at blanketing opposing tight ends. You don't just have to replace a ton of tackles but versatility and the different options and looks a player the caliber of Johnson afforded your defense. Curt Maggitt lines up at linebacker nearly as much as a defensive end but he is used almost exclusively to get after the quarterback. Dillon Bates is a freshman that looks like he will have to patrol the middle and he has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders.

Best Draft Prospect: N/A.



Tennessee ranked #22 in the nation against the pass in 2014 and they hauled in an impressive 16 interceptions. Justin Coleman is a big loss at cornerback for the Volunteers but Cameron Sutton has established himself as the leader of the secondary and he still has two seasons of eligibility. Emmanuel Moseley is the other starter at cornerback since Michael Williams is suspended from the team as he was also charged with rape (the same charge against former Volunteer A.J. Johnson). Sutton is the player that roams in the secondary as he will occasionally act as a nickel back or even as an extra safety. You will see Tennessee use five players in the secondary in a number of formations often going down to just two linebackers. What makes this successful is the experience of the two senior safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil. Randolph and McNeil have an amazing 65 starts between them so experience at safety is unparalleled and both should at the very least be free agent invitees to an NFL Camp after this season. Having the added benefit of some experience rushing the quarterback, it isn't hard to imagine Tennessee having one of the best statistical units for the secondary not only in the SEC but the country.

Best Draft Prospect: Cameron Sutton CB 4th Round 2016.


Special Teams:

Matt Darr continued the tradition of terrific Tennessee punters and Trevor Daniel will be asked to replace the 42.2 AVG that Darr leaves behind. Aaron Medley hit an impressive 20 field goals as a freshman but he struggled with longer tries and Tennessee doesn't want to see Medley attempting 26 field goals this season. The offense should be more efficient in the red zone and the number of field goal attempts should decrease.

Evan Berry was second in the SEC at 29.5 yards per kick return a season ago. Berry is the younger brother of former first round pick and former star safety Eric Berry who now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. We will have to see if Cameron Sutton will handle punt returns again or if Tennessee lets somewone else perform the duties. Punt returns could be a by-comittee approach.

Best Draft Prospect: N/A



Tennessee can make a statement with their first official home game in week two when the Oklahoma Sooners come to town, a season that looks to be a bit down by their standards. October 3rd-October 24th seems to be the most difficult portion of the schedule with home games against Arkansas and Georgia, and then getting a week off before getting the Crimson Tide. Tennessee seems to have an easier close to the season and one that could build momentum to what could easily be an eight win season, and with some luck, one that could teeter on double digits.

Draft Outlook:

Derek Barnett looks like the gem here if his freshman campaign can be replicated. Not only could Barnett be a first round pick, but we could see him declare early after his junior campaign. Cam Sutton is another player to watch, as Tennessee is starting to see a shift of more defensive players looking like draft prospects than on offense, a shift over what we have seen over the last ten seasons.


DJ Boyer


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