Taking stock of Volunteers at their season's midpoint
OCT 09, 2013 8:20p ET
Encouraging performance last Saturday in the overtime loss to Georgia notwithstanding, it is still a fair assessment to say the Volunteers have done nothing more than maintained the status quo during the first half of the first season under new coach Butch Jones.
If that trend continues, then the Volunteers will be hard-pressed to duplicate the 3-3 stance in the second half of the season in order to get bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.
Playing in a bowl game would be considered a successful start to the Jones’ era, considering the team is coming off an unprecedented three-straight losing seasons.
The Volunteers will be prohibitive underdogs the next three games. No. 14 South Carolina comes calling a week from Saturday, followed by visits to No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 26 and No. 25 Missouri on Nov. 2. If the chalk holds and the Volunteers lose all three, then they would need to run the table down the stretch to get to 6-6.
And that won’t be easy, considering the last three games include resurgent Auburn visiting on Nov. 9, a trip to in-state rival Vanderbilt on Nov. 16 and the season finale at home on Nov. 23 against Kentucky, which gave South Carolina all it could handle at home last Saturday.
Heading into Tennessee’s bye weekend, here is a mid-season report card position-by-position on the Volunteers …
It was announced the week of the season opener that junior Justin Worley had beaten out redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman for the starting job. But after two uninspiring performances in wins over Austin Peay and Western Kentucky and looking lost in the blowout loss at Oregon, he was replaced by Peterman at Florida.
It didn’t take long for Peterman to show he wasn’t ready for that assignment, being replaced by Worley late in the first half. It was later revealed that Peterman had broken his hand in the game and was lost for the season, which put freshman Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs in the conversation. Neither has yet to play and redshirt seasons remain a possibility.
Finally, it appeared the light came on for Worley last Saturday against the Bulldogs. He completed 17-of-31 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown. The offense converted a trio of fourth-down plays and held a late lead before Georgia rallied to force overtime. Better yet, Worley didn’t have an interception after throwing five combined against South Alabama (three) and Florida (two) in the previous two games.
Behind the talented offensive line, the Volunteers needed to run the ball this season to take pressure off Worley and the passing game that featured a covey of inexperienced players. While the job was initially to be shared by senior Rajion Neal and junior Marlin Lane.
While not flashy but solid, Neal eventually moved to the front of the line and has gained 616 rushing yards on 108 carries for an average of 5.7 yards per try, including gaining 148 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia. He has a team-high seven touchdowns and ranks third on the team with 14 receptions.
Lane was injured in the South Alabama game and didn’t play against Georgia, but he has been a nice change-of-pace back with more of a slashing style. Before his injury, he had averaged 6.2 yards per carry while gaining 280 yards with four touchdowns.
Last season, the passing game was the offense’s saving grace, considering quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter are now on NFL rosters.
That meant youth had to be served at wide receiver, especially with top recruit Marquez North coming in with ballyhooed credentials. Showing all the tools, he became the third true freshman – joining A.J. Branisel and Josh Smith – to catch a touchdown pass this season after he acrobatically hauled in a 19-yard scoring strike from Worley against Georgia.
The elder statesman of the group is sophomore Alton “Pig” Howard, who leads the team with 218 receiving yards, including a long of 33 yards against Georgia. He is still lamenting fumbling the ball at the goal line in overtime against Georgia while trying to make an athletic play only a few Vols could make.
Not sure that the grade this group earned is what the Volunteers expected when taking into account it is considered one of the best in the country. Then again, the inexperienced group of playmakers behind them at quarterback and receiver has needed time to acclimate to the playing at the collegiate level.
If he decides to come out early, junior left tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson is a first-round NFL draft lock, while senior right tackle Jawaun James won’t come off the board too far behind. They’re a good reason the Vols are rushing for 211 yards per game, solidly ranked seventh in the Southeastern Conference, and 5.4 yards per attempt.
When senior defensive end Jacques Smith returned from missing the first two games with a thumb injury, the defensive front got a huge upgrade. And it certainly needed it, considering it is not a good sign when the secondary has four of the top six tacklers on the team.
Mammoth defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, who is listed at 6-foot-8 and 351 pounds, has to be constantly motivated to keep his motor running. He has only 14 tackles, including only two for lost yardage, and no sacks. Then again, NFL teams are salivating to get their hands on this raw talent.
Seniors Corey Miller and Daniel Hood have been up and down. Miller has two sacks among his 14 tackles, while Hood has only seven stops, including 1 1/2 for loss. The suspension of senior Mo Couch and injury to Trevarris Saulsberry hurt.
This unit has played solidly for the Volunteers, especially senior linebackers A.J. Johnson in the middle and Dontavis Sapp on the outside.
Johnson leads the team and is tied for fourth in the SEC with 47 tackles, including a season-high 12 against Georgia. He now has 265 career tackles, including 142 assists – sixth-best in program history. In 30 career games, he has 15 games with double-digit tackles.
After being named the team’s most-improved defensive player in spring, Sapp parlayed that to currently rank third on the team with 33 tackles. He is first on the team in quarterback hurries and has both a fumble recovery and cause.
This is easily the best unit for the Volunteers. Already, the secondary has 11 interceptions, one shy of last season’s total and ranked second nationally behind Virginia Tech’s 13. Seven different defenders have at least one pick.
Four of the team’s top six tacklers are defensive backs, including sophomore free safety Brian Randolph in second place with 44 stops -- sixth in the SEC. He also tops the team with three interceptions.
Junior cornerback Justin Coleman and sophomore strong safety LaDarrell McNeil are tied for fourth on the team with 23 tackles. Coleman leads the team with five pass break-ups.
Senior Michael Palardy has handled all the place-kicking and punting chores this season. He is 5-of-6 on the season in field goals.
Palardy is currently fifth in the SEC with an average of 45.7 yards per punt, and he was pretty amazing against Georgia, booming a 65-yard punt in the first half. He followed that with punts of 51 and 57 yards in the second half, giving him eight punts of 50 yards or more this season.
The return game has been pretty good. Junior Vincent Dallas is averaging 22.2 yards on kickoff returns -- third in the SEC -- with a long of 36 yards. The Vols limited Georgia to minus 2 yards on four punt returns.
Much of what Jones has done positively came before kickoff of the first game. He energized the fan base with his no-nonsense yet energetic approach that embraced the Vols’ football tradition. He also re-engaged former players like star quarterback Peyton Manning and salvaged an initial recruiting class.
He and his staff continue to win the recruiting battles. Currently, the 25 commitments for the incoming class of 2014 trails only Alabama and is ranked second in the nation by Scout.com. This past weekend, many potential signees were on campus to attend the Georgia game, which had to have them leaving liking what they saw.
As for this season, the Vols lost the chance for a signature victory when they lost in overtime to Georgia. The team look ill-equipped to withstand the offensive onslaught of Oregon in the 59-14 loss. Plus, the decision to start Peterman instead of Worley against Florida was obviously the wrong decision.
All in all, Volunteers fans are happy with where the program has started and appears to be headed under Jones. If he can navigate the second half of the season much like he did the first, then 2013 has the chance to be considered a successful one.